“Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

William_Hogarth_-_After_-_Google_Art_Project

After. William Hogarth, 1730.

As you’re reading my series, you might notice that condoms (or “cundums”) are present. “Now, Jess,” you might be thinking to yourself, “I know you’re obsessed with contraception, but were people really using condoms in 1671?”

Yes, reader. Yes, they were.

The invention of modern condoms has been attributed to many people, and one of the front runners was Gabriele Fallopio (three guesses what he gave his name to) who recommended linen sheaths soaked in salt and herbs to prevent disease in his De Morbo Gallico (1564), a treatise against syphilis (translation: About the French Disease).

He was hardly the first person to use them for this purpose. Condoms have been used in various forms as far back as ancient Egypt (and beyond, if you believe that cave painting). By the Restoration, a Colonel Quondam, believed to have been a physician in the Royalist army, was rumored to have invented one made of animal gut for the notoriously amorous Charles II.

The first known mention of using sheep’s innards as a barrier method dates back to Minos, but we’ll let him have this one.

The process of producing condoms made of sheep intestines was lengthy. In The Sexual History of London, Catharine Arnold writes:

4a54b-condom2b1640

This is a condom from 1640. Check your expiration dates, folks.

“(The) process involved soaking sheep’s intestines in water for a number of hours, then turning them inside out and macerating them again in a weak alkaline solution, changed every twelve hours. The intestines were then scraped carefully to remove the mucous membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats, and exposed to the vapor of burning brimstone. Next they were washed in soap and water, inflated, dried, and cut into eight-inch lengths. Finally, the open end was finished with a ribbon that could be tied around the base of the penis, and the condom had to be soaked in water to make it supple before use. After use, it could be washed and hung up to dry, ready for another excursion.”

Condoms became incredibly popular and were even lauded by the Earl of Rochester in 1667 as a protection against both disease and pregnancy in his Panegyrick Upon Cundums:

Happy the Man, who in his Pocket keeps,
Whether with green or scarlet Ribband bound,
A well made Cundum — He, nor dreads the Ills
Of Shankers or Cordee, or Bubos dire!”
Thrice happy he — (for when in lewd Embrace
Of Transport-feigning Whore, Creature obscene!
The cold insipid Purchase of a Crown!
Bless’d Chance! Sight seldom seen! and mostly given
By Templar or Oxonian — Best Support
Of Drury and her starv’d Inhabitants

He later died of syphilis.

Rochester definitely had the right idea, but at the time, there was a popular belief that venereal disease could not be spread between men, so some men took to entertaining themselves with their own sex to avoid disease, with small groups even swearing off women altogether. That sounds like a great excuse to me and will be the subject of an altogether different post.

But we’ll get there.

In the meantime, you can read Rochester’s Panegyrick Upon Cundums in its entirety here, and I recommend you do. It’s amazing. I’ll leave you with another little excerpt. Rochester makes a guest appearance in Tyburn, and Sally could be somewhere in this passage:

That when replete with Love, and spur’d by Lust,
You seek the Fair-one in her Cobweb Haunts,
Or when allur’d by Touch of passing Wench,
Or caught by Smile insidious of the Nymph
Who in Green Box at Playhouse nightly flaunts,
And fondly calls thee to Love’s luscious Feast,
Be cautious, stay a while ’till fitly arm’d
With Cundum Shield, at Rummer best supply’d,
Or never-failing Rose; so you may thrum
Th’ ecstatic Harlot, and each joyous Night
Crown with fresh Raptures; ’till at least unhurt,
And sated with the Banquet, you retire.
By me forwarn’d thus may you ever treat
Love’s pleasing Paths in blest Security.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages.

Fallopio, Gabriele. De Morbo Gallico.

Wilmot, John. A Panegyrick upon Cundums.

Previously published on authorjessicacale.com

Women and Whiskey are Plentiful Here: Occupied Nashville’s Soiled Doves

NashvilleNashville, Tennessee was the largest city on the Western Front during the Civil War. With over 100,000 troops passing through the city from its occupation in 1862 until the end of the war in 1865, there was a real problem with idle troops and prostitutes.

The state of Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy on June 24, 1861. Following a vote by the people, Governor Isham G. Harris proclaimed “All connections by the State of Tennessee with the Federal Union dissolved…Tennessee is a free, independent government.” Nashville became a target of the Union forces due to the city’s importance as a port on the Cumberland River. Its importance as the capital of Tennessee made it a desirable prize. When it became the first Confederate state capital to fall to Union troops, the city was evacuated and Governor Harris issued a call for the legislature to assemble in Memphis.

Text from the March 8, 1862 Harper’s Weekly edition stated:

The commerce of Nashville is very large, being carried on by river and railroads, and by turnpike roads…The average annual shipments are—30,000 bales of cotton, 6000 hogsheads of tobacco, 2,000,000 bushels of wheat, 6,000,000 bushels of Indian corn, and 10,000 casks of bacon. The leading business of the city is in dry goods, hardware, drugs, and groceries. Book publishing is carried on more extensively than in any other Western town, and the publishing house of the Southern Methodist Conference is one of the largest book manufactories in the United States. The value of the taxable property here is $15,000,000.

What exactly does this mean and how did Nashville become so sexy? First, let’s look into a little history of Tennessee. Why was it the last state to leave the Union? It’s complicated. East Tennessee was very pro-Union, comprised of mainly small farmers due to the mountainous terrain. Middle Tennessee was much the same, although the farms were larger. Corn was king unlike cotton of the deep south. That corn made its way throughout the United States, with the British Empire being the biggest consumer of the crop. West Tennessee and Memphis had ties to the cotton of the deep south, however the city of Memphis mainly had allegiance to the banking industry in New York City. Farmers in the state were making a fortune and they didn’t want a war. But, eventually when the Union fired back on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the people of Tennessee felt that the U.S. government had overstepped its boundaries, and the state begrudgingly tossed in its lot with the Confederacy.

Nashville-Union Occupation

Still, Tennessee remained divided. The town of Shelbyville became known as “Little Boston” because it so vehemently decried the choice to leave the Union. Bedford County, the home of the controversial Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest sent as many troops to fight for the Confederacy as it did the Union. When Nashville was occupied by Union forces, there were many Union sympathizers living there, even though it was considered a Confederate capital.

In 1860, before the war began, Nashville had seen an era of economic prosperity. Annual commerce was over $25 million, which was remarkable for a population of slightly less than 20,000 residents, according to the 1860 census. Steamboats had cruised the Cumberland River, and four railroads converged on Nashville. With a major university, a medical school, and numerous academies, scholars from across the South were attracted to Nashville to pursue their education. Publishers called Nashville home and their products enhanced the culture and prestige of the city. There were eight Methodist Churches, three Presbyterian, along with many other denominations, including Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran. This cultural renaissance was complemented by the state capitol building, completed in 1855.

Closer to the river was a shadow district, known as Smokey Row, where an industry catered to the visitors brought into the city on business. This area by the docks thrived on nightlife. The 1860 census names 207 women whose occupation was listed as prostitute; 198 were white and nine were mulatto. Eighty-seven were illiterate; eight could read but not write. Twenty were widows and most were born in Tennessee. They were known as public women. They were called soiled doves, nymphs du pave (girls of the pavement), and frail but fair women. During the Civil War era terms for houses in the district were houses of ill fame, ill repute, bawdy houses, or parlor houses.

U.S. Major General William Rosecrans believed Nashville was an ideal location for his troops. The placement of the city on the rail lines and the Cumberland River made for excellent movement of men and artillery. It appeared to be the perfect spot on the Western Front to gather troops, teach maneuvers, and sharpen tactical abilities for the next round of fighting. Union troops settled into the city, and unexpected trade began to boom. The strong Yankee dollar took over the town. The next four years would see a very different Nashville.

Old_nashville_riverfront

General Rosecrans underestimated the allure of Smokey Row.

Abandoned women began arriving from the industrial cities of the northern states, then from the war ravaged rural areas of the southern states. By 1862, the number of working women in Nashville had increased substantially from the 207 in 1860. Keep in mind that the early Union troops were young volunteers between the ages of 18-22, most of them were away from home for the first time. They were eager to spend their small wages on the soiled doves in the bawdy houses.

By early 1863, Rosecrans and his staff were not only at war against the Confederate Army, they were at war with disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea infections spread through the Union troops. The infections were practically as lethal to soldiers as combat at that time. Almost 9 percent of Union troops would be infected with STDs before the end of the Civil War. The only known way to treat infection was with mercury. Considering that the battle injury rate was 18 percent, the severity of this plague was alarming, with deadly consequences for General Rosecrans’s command.

Religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening had swept across the country in the mid-1850s. The result of this fervor, particularly in the North, saw women become involved in efforts including temperance, the abolition of slavery, and other reform movements. Due to the spread of STDs first in the military, then into the civilian populations, their cultured, Southern sisters were not far behind them. Demands were made to clean up the city.

Local physicians responded to the dilemma and a Dr. Coleman ran an advertisement in which he announced that he had opened a Dispensary for Private Diseases. Another physician, Dr. A. Richard Jones, opened a medical office offering the same service on Dederick Street.

Meanwhile, Capt. Ephraim Wilson described the first major attempt to control wartime prostitution: “During the winter of 1862-63, the Army had a social enemy to contend with which seriously threatened its very existence…the women of the town.”

Union officials decided on what they believed to be the easiest solution. Since they couldn’t stop soldiers from visiting local prostitutes, something had to be done to move the girls out of Nashville. The movement to legalize prostitution in Nashville began in June 1863, when Brigadier General R. S. Granger noted that officers and medical staff petitioned him to “save the army from venereal disease, a fate worse . . . than to perish on the battlefield.”

Capt. Wilson continued to document the situation, “Fifteen hundred of them at a single time were gathered up and placed aboard a train and were compelled to leave and conducted under guard to Louisville.” Louisville at first objected to receiving such a formidable array of unwelcome guests, but finally consented to do so, and Nashville was afterward all the happier and better off for their conspicuous absence.” But, the women had not agreed to this relocation plan and were soon back in Nashville.

At the same time, a frailer group of women were placed on board a steamship name the Idahoe. (Yes, you read the name correctly. Truth is always stranger than fiction.) Louisville refused to take them since they were sick, and due to concerns that there may be Confederate spies among them, and the steamer headed for Cincinnati. That city refused them as well. It should be noted that at both ports men swam the river and attempted to climb on board when they heard news that a steamship filled with women of easy virtue was approaching. Union troops shot at the men to keep them from climbing on board. The women, knowing that they had lost income at both ports, destroyed the interior of the steamer. The owner never recouped his losses and the ladies were returned to Nashville.

The problem became increasingly worse. The Union Army had overlooked a basic, strategic factor which no army should ignore – that of supply and demand.

Finally, in an attempt to regulate the spread of disease, a referendum was passed where prostitutes had to be examined, declared disease free, treated and given a license to practice their trade. The Union Army in Nashville established the United States’s first system of legalized prostitution.

License

The plan was simple. Each lady would register and receive a license for $5, which allowed her to freely practice her trade. An Army doctor examined the girls each week at an additional 50 cent fee, to ensure they remained disease free. Those who had caught a disease were sent to a hospital established specifically for them. Anyone found ‘working’ without a license, or those who didn’t appear for a weekly examination were arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Once suspicious of the military laws because of the treatment they had received, Nashville’s soiled doves took to the new system with as much enthusiasm as those who established it. One doctor penned that they no longer had to turn to “quacks and charlatans” for ineffective treatments, and eagerly showed potential customers their licenses to prove that they were disease-free.

The war ended, the soldiers moved on, and the women went their way, too. Nashville became the Music City in the 20th Century and is a global publishing hub. As for the ladies, they probably did a great deal to boost morale, and the coffers of the city, especially as the war became longer and deadlier than anyone ever imagined. These women offered their talents, and we have to admire their courage, feel their suffering, and acknowledge their ability to survive during this tragic era in our nation’s history.

Deb Hunter writes fiction as Hunter S. Jones, publishing as an indie author, as well as through MadeGlobal Publishing. She is a member of the prestigious Society of Authors founded by Lord Tennyson, Society of Civil War Historians (US), Dangerous Women Project Global Writers Initiative (University of Edinburgh), Romance Writers of America (PAN member), Historical Writers’ Association, Historical Novel Society, English Historical Fiction Authors, Atlanta Writers Club, Atlanta Writers Conference, and Rivendell Writers Colony which is associated with The University of the South. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her Scottish born husband.

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Sources
Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War: A Compendium of 1,036 True Stories. Thomas P. Lowry, Xlibris Press, 2006. (He notes the terms whore, whorehouse, and bordello were infrequently used terms during the Civil War era.)
The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Thomas P. Lowry. Stackpole Press, 1994.
Charles Smart, ed., The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Part III, vol. II, Medical Volume. District of Columbia, 1888.
U.S. Census Bureau (1860). Tennessee State Government Archives, History. Retrieved from http://Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL).
“A Strange Cargo,” Cleveland Morning Leader, July 21, 1863.
“Harper’s Weekly,” March 8, 1862.
“The Curious Case of Nashville’s Frail Sisterhood.” Angela Serratore, Smithsonian Magazine, 2013.
“City’s Civil War ‘Secret’ Revealed,” George Zepp, The Tennessean, 2003.
Photograph of the Nashville Wharf, taken by Calvert Brothers, shortly after the Civil War. From the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Nashville under Union occupation, c. 1863. Library of Congress.
Nashville prostitution license, 1863. National Archives.
All photographs are public domain or owned by the author.

The Age of Agony: Surgery in the 19th Century

Amputation. Thomas Rowlandson, 1793.

Amputation. Thomas Rowlandson, 1793.

Surgery in the early 19th century usually meant a death sentence. It was the last resort and never undertaken lightly. Statistics from the time put the chance of dying as a result as high as 80% and surgeons were still not really considered to be proper doctors. Even the simplest of procedures carried a level of risk because there were three ferocious killers that had to be contended with: infection, pain, and bleeding.

Complex operations on the internal organs were impossible, so most operations at this time were either amputations of gangrenous limbs or the hacking away of obvious and engorged tumours and growths. It was not uncommon for a person to succumb to shock and die during such an operation. The pain must have been excruciating. Without anaesthetics, they would feel every cut, their only comfort a leather strap to chew on while they were forcibly held down by however many people it took to keep them in place. In the British army, soldiers had to ‘bite the bullet’ before the field surgeon got to work, although all surgeons were trained to prefer their patients screaming. It was a good gauge to know whether or not they were actually still alive.

L0001337 Amputation of the thigh, 19th century Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Amputation of the thigh, 19th century 1820 Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery Bell, Sir Charles Published: 1820 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Amputation of the Thigh. Sir Charles Bell, 1820.

Assuming these tragic individuals did not expire from heart failure on the table, the loss of blood would probably kill them. The discovery of blood types, which made successful transfusion possible, would not come until 1901, so surgeons had to devise other ways to stop their patients bleeding out on the table. Tourniquets were standard issue, but when amputating a limb, many arteries and veins would be cut through. To quickly stem the flow of bleeding the only weapon a surgeon had in his arsenal was a cautery, a metal tool which could be heated in a fire and then pressed firmly onto an open wound to seal the blood vessels. This technique was more successful on smaller wounds than larger, and even then, speed was off the essence. The poor soul on the table would enjoy both the horrendous pain of cauterisation alongside the sounds and smell of his own burning flesh.

Because of the risk of excessive blood loss, operations had to be quick, and no one was quicker than Robert Liston. Although brilliant for his time, Liston was also a bit of a showman and throngs of eager fans turned up to watch him work. He would stalk into the operating theatre at the same moment the patient had been restrained, with the ominous words “Time me, gentleman!” Then he would grab the unfortunate’s offending leg and begin to cut. Spectators reported Liston frequently held his knife in his teeth while he quickly sawed through the bone, then threw the severed limb into a bucket at his feet before he tied off the arteries. His average speed from first incision to wound closure was two and a half minutes. As barbaric as this seems, few people died on Liston’s table…of course, they died afterwards in their droves.

His legend was further embellished by his brutish behaviour. Once, when a patient fled the operating room crying in terror and barricaded himself into an adjoining room, Liston single-handedly broke down the door and dragged the man kicking and screaming back to the table. In one operation, not only did he amputate a man’s leg, he accidentally cut off his testicle as well. In another, he sawed through both the leg of the patient and three of the fingers of the man holding the patient down. Both men later died of infection.

Robert Liston Operating. Ernest Board, 1912.

Robert Liston Operating. Ernest Board, 1912.

Infection was by far the biggest risk. In 1800, the concept of germs and bacteria even existing was at least another sixty years away. As was antiseptic. Surgeons worked in unhygienic conditions, rarely washing either their hands or their knives before an operation. Often in hospitals, because it was such a rarity, the procedure would be carried out in front of an audience, hence the term ‘operating theatre’ we still use today. The opportunities for contamination under these circumstances were huge. Both the surgeon and the audience wore their street clothes and boots, and the cramped gallery would be filled with the potentially deadly microbes released by their breath. ‘Surgical sepsis’ could set in within hours of the operation, and once that occurred, it was curtains for the patient. In a world where germs had yet to be discovered, they certainly did not have any medicines to treat them.

In fact, people would try anything to avoid having surgery. There are hundreds of recorded cases of giant tumours which would be inconceivable today. Liston once removed a forty-five-pound tumour from one man’s scrotum which was so large, the patient pushed it around in a wheelbarrow rather than face the spectre of a death which came from a visit to a sawbones. Despite all of my research, I still have no idea if this poor fellow actually survived. Statistically speaking, I sincerely doubt that he did.

Virginia Heath writes witty, raunchy Regency romances for Harlequin Mills & Boon. That Despicable Rogue is available now and her second novel, Her Enemy at the Altar, comes out in July 2016.

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Syphilis: Zoonotic Pestilence or New World Souvenir?

mercury preparation for syphilis

Depiction of mercury treatments for syphilis.

The “French Disease”

In 1494, France was at war with Naples when the French camp was struck by a terrible disease.
It began with genital sores, spread to a general rash, then caused abscesses and scabs all over the body. Boils as big as acorns, they said, that burst leaving rotting flesh and a disgusting odour. Sufferers also had fever, headaches, sore throats, and painful joints and bones. The disease was disabling, ugly, and terrifying. And people noticed almost from the first that it (usually) started on the genitals, and appeared to be spread by sexual congress.

The Italian kingdoms joined forces and threw out the French, who took the disease home with them, and from there it spread to plague the world until this day.

Where did it come from?

Syphilis. The French Disease. The Pox. The Great Imitator (because it looks like many other illnesses and is hard to diagnose). The French call it the Neopolitan Disease. It is caused by a bacterium that is closely related to the tropical diseases yaws and bejel.

Scientists theorise that somewhere in the late 15th Century, perhaps right there in the French camp outside of Naples, a few slightly daring yaws bacteria found the conditions just right to change their method of transmission. No longer merely skin-to-skin contact, but a very specific type of contact: from sores to mucus membranes in the genitals, anus, or mouth.

They’ve found a couple of possible sources.

One was the pre-Columbian New World, where yaws was widespread. Did one of Columbus’s sailors carry it back? It would have had to have been the first or second voyage to be outside of Naples in 1494.

The other is zoonotic. Six out of every ten human infectious diseases started in animals. Was syphilis one of them? Monkeys in Africa suffer from closely related diseases, at least one of which is sexually transmitted.

Gerard de Lairesse

Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse. Rembrandt, 1665. Gerard de Lairesse was an artist who suffered from congenital syphilis.

Mild is a relative term

At first, syphilis killed sufferers within a few months, but killing the host immediately is a bad strategy when you’re a bacterium. Especially when you’re a frail little bacterium that can’t live outside of warm, moist mucus membranes.

So, syphilis adapted. Soon, few people died immediately. The first sore (or chancre) appears between ten days to three months after contact. About ten weeks after it heals, the rash appears, and the other symptoms mentioned above. These symptoms last for several weeks and tend to disappear without treatment, but reoccur several times over the next two years.

For more than half of sufferers, that’s it. The disease has run its course. But it is a sneaky little thing. It is still lurking, and a third or more of those who contract the disease will develop late complications up to thirty years after the original chancre. These are the ones to fear. During the latent phase, the disease is cheerfully eating away at the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of the body.

The sufferer can look forward to years, even decades, of mental illness, blindness, other neurological problems, or heart disease, and eventually the blessed relief of death.

How was it treated?

Until the invention of antibiotics, the treatment was as bad as the cure. Physicians and apothecaries prescribed mercury in ointments, steam baths, pills, and other forms. Mercury is a poison, and can
cause hair loss, ulcers, nerve damage, madness, and death. (see image above)

Syphilis was the impetus for the adoption of condoms, their birth control effect noticed later and little regarded (since conception was a woman’s problem). The first clear description is of linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution and allowed to dry before use. Animal intestines and bladder, and fine leather condoms also appear in the literature.

They were sold in pubs, apothecaries, open-air markets, and at the theatre, and undoubtedly every wise prostitute kept a stock.

Not having sex—or at least not having sex with multiple partners—would have been a more effective solution, but it appears few of society’s finest took notice of that!

Syphilis in romantic fiction

Those of us who write rakes would do well to remember how easy it was to catch the pox. Indeed, in some circles it was a rite of passage!

“I’ve got the pox!” crowed the novelist de Maupassant in his 20s. “At last! The real thing!” He did his part as a carrier by having sex with six prostitutes in quick succession while friends watched on. (Perrottet)

The mind boggles.

We can, I am sure, have fun with the symptoms and the treatment, though we’d do well to remember that it was not an immediate death sentence, and suicide might be considered an overreaction to the first active stage, when most people got better and were never troubled again.

Scattered across a few of the books I’m writing, I have my own syphilitic character in the final stage, suffering from slow deterioration of his mental facilities and occasional bouts of madness, though his condition is a secret from all but his wife, his doctor, and his heir.

Watch this space!

Jude Knight is the pen name of Judy Knighton. After a career in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, Jude is returning to her first love, fiction. She writes strong determined heroines, heroes with the sense to appreciate them, and villains you’ll love to loathe.

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References

Cohen, Ann and Perlin, David. Syphilis: A Sexual Scourge with a Long History. Infoplease.

Harper, Kristen, Zuckerman, Molly, and Armelagos, George. Syphilis: Then and Now. The Scientist. 

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Syphilis. 

Mroczkowski, Tomasz F. History, Sex and Syphilis: Famous Syphilitics and Their Private Lives.

Perrottet, Tony. When Syphilis Was Tres Chic. The Smart Set. 

Five Horrible Ways to Die in Restoration London

 

In my book Tyburn, the heroine, Sally, is convinced that Death is following her, and the more you read about life in Restoration London, the more you realize that she is probably right.

Seventeenth-century London was an incredibly dangerous place, and causes of death were mostly mysterious. In his Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, John Graunt offers some of the following explanations: traffic, sciatica, swine-pox, wen, lethargy, fear, sadness, itch, and rather worryingly, “mother.”

If the people living in Restoration London were lucky enough to survive childhood, they could be killed by several afflictions that no longer trouble us today. Apart from the most serious culprits like Tuberculosis and plague, people could die from as little as falling down in the uneven, filthy streets. Do you think you could survive Restoration London? Here’s what you’re up against:

95524-pestarztPlague: Which one? Both the pneumonic and the bubonic plagues claimed lives throughout the period. Infection would begin with a flea bite, and from there either spread to the lungs (pneumonic) or the lymph nodes (bubonic). The pneumonic plague resulted in death within three days. The bubonic plague could had a survival rate of about 30%, but still managed to kill an estimated 100,000 people in London alone between 1665-66.

Falling into a Plague Pit: In Journal of a Plague Year, Defoe describes an occurrence of a cart, driver, and horses crash into a plague pit where it was completely swallowed by the corpses and never recovered. There were so many of these pits and they were so large that this happened frequently. There’s a massive plague pit underneath Hyde Park that has affected the path of the Underground, and other pits are still being discovered.

84a31-dc3bcrersyphilis1496Syphilis (The Great Pox, the French Pox): Syphilis was probably brought to Europe by Columbus and had reached Naples by 1494 (thanks, jerk). It was seen as primarily a male problem, and was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores. Syphilis was treated at this stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pill to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was someone successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If you were lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, you could look forward to madness and paralysis.

Jail Fever (Epidemic Typhus): Spread through body lice, common in dirty, overcrowded conditions, it broke out mainly in jails like Newgate. It causes fever, headache, weakness, and rash, and can lead to swelling of the heart or encephalitis.

The King’s Evil (Scrofula): Tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck. It was believed to be curable by the touch of royalty as far back as Edward the Confessor. The disease often went into remission on its own, so the Royal Touch appeared to work. Charles II touched more than 90,000 people afflicted between 1660 and 1682.

Good thing Sally fancies a physician, huh?

Originally posted on Kimber Vale’s blog here. Stop by and say hi!

Plague and Tulips: Gambling in a Time of Pestilence. Guest Post by J.G. Harlond

The Viceroy, from a 1637 catalog. One
bulb cost between 3,000 and 4,150 florins.

The first recorded economic bubble, ‘tulipomania’, occurred in the Dutch United Provinces between 1635 and 1637. The 1630s were a period of intense political and religious intrigue, when Pope Urban VIII appeared to be supporting Spain’s attempt to reclaim her lost territories in the Netherlands, but was actually conspiring to limit the size and power of the Habsburg Empire, to which Spain belonged; when France was playing both sides against the middle to undermine Spain’s power in Europe; and ordinary men and women everywhere were dying of the plague. 

Set during this epoch, my novel The Chosen Man features the charismatic, wicked but likable Ludovico da Portovenere, a charming Genoese rogue known to everyone as Ludo, and shows how it can take just one man with the right connections to create financial mayhem and ruin the lives of humble men and women. Acting on behalf of the Spanish monarch and Vatican cardinals, Ludo encourages and facilitates the futures market and outrageous sales of tulip bulbs in Holland. However, while I may have tinkered with fact in this area, the very real presence of the plague in the United Provinces at the time must have played a critical part in what actually happened.

The conspiracy theory behind what Ludo does in the novel has never been proved, and I should point out that Ludo is a fictional character, but the tulip bubble is documented history. Contemporary reports and records of sales transactions demonstrate the outrageous escalating prices paid up to 1637, when the bubble burst. The question is why did otherwise sober, thrifty Dutchmen, and many women, engage in what was basically gambling – with flowers that for most of the year could not even be seen? The answer lies in the combination of factors, but the very present threat of the plague, I think, was the final impetus. Death was literally on their doorsteps. 

Let us take Amsterdam in 1635 as an example. It’s a busy, thriving city with a huge population for the epoch. The Dutch have wrested their independence from Spain and are currently engaged in the Thirty Years War in Flanders to keep it. The general ethos is what we now call the ‘work ethic’; frippery and ostentation are frowned upon. So what can people who by their very thrift have acquired surplus income spend their money on? Something that is not an adornment or a visible luxury, but is defined as a ‘connoisseur item’ and coveted; something that is guaranteed to double, triple its value in the space of a year, a month, a week . . . Tulip bulbs. Money must not lie idle.

But does this really explain why people are willing, desperate even to spend their savings and then raise cash or exchange their worldly goods for flowers? Not altogether. I think the bell they hear each evening and the cry ‘Bring out your dead’ is probably the final motivating factor. Many if not most of the people engaged in this futures market are Protestants and Calvinists: they must work hard and be seen to work hard to earn their passage to heaven and be counted among the ‘elect’ – but they could be dead tomorrow. Their future is as shaky as the anticipated profits in tulip transactions – so what is there to lose? And if in the process of buying and selling on little brown bulbs they make even more money, their families will be provided for in the future.

 An industrious author of the time, Munting, wrote over a thousand pages on ‘tulipomania’. In one pamphlet he recorded the items and their value which were traded for a single Viceroy bulb (see illustration above left). As you read, bear in mind the family of a shoemaker or baker lived on between 250 and 350 guilders a year. 

The Semper augustus, the most
expensive tulip sold.


Item                         Value (florins)
Two lasts of wheat          448
Four lasts of rye             558
Four fat oxen                  480
Eight fat swine                240
Twelve fat sheep            120
Two hogsheads of wine   70
Four casks of beer          32
Two tons of butter          192
A complete bed              100
A suit of clothes               80
A silver drinking cup        60
Total                            2,500

At its height, in the early spring of 1637, a Dutch merchant paid 6,650 guilders for a dozen tulip bulbs. The merchant wasn’t simply a rich man buying expensive the bulbs to plant and enjoy for their colour, he intended to sell on and make a profit – as his fellow Dutchmen had been doing for the past two years. Records document instances of farmers giving up their farms to acquire bulbs and men exchanging their homes for a just one single rare bulb. Artisans pawned or sold their tools to ‘invest’ in tulips. Between 1635 and 1637 everyone, it seemed, was trading in tulips. There were also connoisseurs, mostly belonging to the professional class, who spent huge sums on what they considered an object of art. All these people, merchants, artisans and lawyers, fell prey to this collective madness – why?

As I say, there is no single answer, but the socio-economic and climate conditions of the epoch were perfect for ‘tulip mania’. Having lived in the province of Holland I can fully appreciate why, once tulips had been introduced into northern Europe at the turn of the 17th century, they became so popular. Tulips bring colour and a promise of spring at the end of long, dark, tedious winters. The 1600s were during a mini-ice-age: no wonder people wanted something to brighten their homes and gardens. This was also the period known as the Dutch ‘golden age’. The Protestant ethic of hard work and the egalitarian nature of the Independent Provinces meant many people now had a disposable income. It was a period of house-building and home-improvements; people were buying musical instruments and investing in works of art. But the plague was everywhere: death was quite literally round the corner. Dutch frugality and diligence had led to wealth, but many obviously feared they might not have the time to enjoy it and took to the excitement and risks in gambling. 

Here is an extract from The Chosen Man that illustrates the situation in Amsterdam in 1636. Encouraged by the wicked Ludo da Portovenere, Elsa vander Woude, a wealthy widow, has become involved in tulip trading. The scene takes place in her salon:

***
Admirael van der Eijck, 1637
Sold for 1045 florins

 . . . the unspoken promises she believed had urged her into buying and selling on a scale she could never have imagined. Just this week she had speculated on a whole bed of bizarden tulips owned by a Haarlem florist. And her enthusiasm, her physical drive had impelled Paul Henning into the speculator’s market, too. He was already trading on the bulbs just in the ground and not to be lifted until after they bloomed in March, April or May. It was gambling, of course, and that had held him back at first, but he was as much a part of the new tulip trade as she was now, and making an excellent living. Good Paul Henning with a proper bank account; a fine, safe account in one of the new Amsterdam banks.  (. . . ) And here he was mixing as an equal in his late employer’s salon with his wife and other gentlemen and their wives, all enjoying fruit punch and sweet wine, and celebrating a good year’s trading. Such changes! Such good changes bringing benefit to all. Elsa turned her back to the window and sought out her late husband’s loyal clerk. 

Paul Henning was not mingling as she imagined, he was standing at the far side of the room observing what was going on around him, a very serious look on his face. Stopping for a polite word here and there, Elsa crossed the room to stand beside him. “Henning, my dear, why so glum?”

“Glum? No, not glum, Me’vrouw.”

“Then what are you thinking? Dark thoughts I fear, but I cannot see why.”

“Forgive me. I feel a little out of place here. I was not raised to mix with the rich.”

“Neither you, nor many here (. . .) Tulips are a great leveller Henning. Don’t feel ill at ease (. . .) You’re going to be a rich man Henning. It’s so much easier now we don’t actually have to have the bulbs in our hands to sell them. Do you know, last week I sold a whole bed of tulips—the ones I bought near Haarlem last spring for—well, for an awful lot more than I paid, and they were already in the ground. The whole transaction took two pieces of paper. It wouldn’t surprise me if that same bed of flowers doesn’t get passed on at a tremendous profit four, five times before spring!”

“That’s what worries me, Me’vrouw. To be honest, it is exactly that which worries me. If you—we—are buying and selling without seeing the product—well, anyone can cheat us. Tell us they’ve got a bed of purple on white and when they’re lifted they’re just plain red or yellow. And buying bulbs and off-sets according to goldsmiths’ weights doesn’t seem to make much sense either. Since when was a big winter potato any better quality than a small, floury summer root? Something here is not right, Me’vrouw.”

“Oh, you Doubting Thomas! You Jonah!” Bending her head to the concerned man Elsa whispered, “Does it matter? I mean we’ve got some lovely flowers already, we know they are safe and right; what harm can a little speculating do?”

Paul Henning did not reply. Then quietly he said, “Me’vrouw, I was raised to understand that the respectable working man worked hard to keep his place. What I fear is not that I will fail to get rich, but that I will lose what little I have. Security is all. If you will forgive me saying, it was your late husband’s motto, was it not?”

Elsa did not reply; she was not listening. Paul Henning smiled cautiously and Elsa vander Woude went on spinning an elaborate future for his family.

Above the hum of voices and laughter there was the distant clanging of the plague bell and the terribly familiar call, “Bring out your dead.”

“Death is also a great leveller,” Paul Henning murmured.

***


Both Elsa and Paul Henning will suffer when the bubble bursts although they are involved in tulip trading for very different reasons: Elsa because she wants to believe in Ludo; and Henning because he has a family and no other income. Each has a very different outlook on life, but ultimately they are both victims.

The initial idea for the main plot in The Chosen Man came to me while watching a documentary about the fall of Lehman Brothers. There are clear parallels also to the mortgage scandals in Britain and the USA of recent years; how people had been encouraged to borrow well above their means believing the market would only ever be buoyant; and how, in some cases, it took just one man to set in motion a dramatic financial collapse. Obviously, we are not threatened by the plague but in many ways life today is just as precarious: car crashes, plane crashes, heart-attacks . . . People rarely learn from history – but . . . Carpe Diem.

The Chosen Man published by Penmore Press: http://www.penmorepress.com
It is the first novel in the Ludo da Portovenere trilogy by J.G. Harlond. You can contact J.G. Harlond at jgharlond (at) telefonica.net, and you can visit her website here at www.jgharlond.com

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester: Satirist, Poet, and Libertine

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Portrait by Sir Peter Lely.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was a Restoration courtier, poet, satirist, and libertine. He was lauded by Andrew Marvell and Voltaire, who described him as a man of genius and translated some of his work into French. Entertaining and offending with works such as Signior Dildo and Panegyrick Upon Cundums, his life was no less exciting than his verse. He inherited his title at age eleven, kidnapped his future wife at seventeen, trained one of the period’s most famous actresses, and fell in and out of the King’s favor until his death from syphilis at age thirty-three. A rake and accomplished wit, his actions and works would impress and offend in equal measure for centuries to come, and he even received the compliment of being banned in the Victorian period. 

So who was he? 

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious  creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own share
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational. (1)


John Wilmot was born, appropriately enough, on April Fool’s Day, 1647. His father, Henry, Viscount Wilmot, was a Cavalier hero credited with assisting the future Charles II’s escape to the Continent after the battle of Worcester in 1651. For his service to Charles II, he was created Earl of Rochester in 1652. John inherited the title at the age of eleven with his father’s death in 1658.

As an act of gratitude to his father, Charles II himself sent the young Earl of Rochester on a Grand Tour of France and Italy that would last three years and acquaint the fourteen-year old with a great deal of European writing and thought. He returned at seventeen and formally entered the court on Christmas Day of 1664.

Charles II suggested the relatively impoverished Rochester marry heiress Elizabeth Mallet. Mallet was not opposed: “He was handsome: tall, graceful, well-shaped. His complexion was fair, of a rosy hue; and his good breeding and wit were striking… He was far too attractive for a flirtatious fifteen year-old to reject out of hand. Moreover, he could write the sort of fashionable, amorous, pastoral poetry that delighted (her) girlish heart.” 

That poetry is still pretty effective today:

My rifled Love would soon retire,
Dissolving into Aire,
Should I that Nymph cease to admire,
Blest in whose Arms I will expire*
Or at her Feet despair.


Elizabeth understandably was no opposed to the idea of marrying the gorgeous, intelligent, and very witty earl, but her relatives were less keen on the idea. When they refused the match, Rochester handled their refusal with dignity and grace.

Just kidding. He kidnapped her.

According to Pepys’ diary entry for May 26th, 1665:

“Here, upon my telling the story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallet, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men and forcibly taken from him, and put in a coach with six horses and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoken to the lady often, but with no success) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower…”


Rochester spent three weeks in the Tower for this stunt, but his bravado paid off. Two years later, after he distinguished himself in the second Dutch War and was installed a Whitehall as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Elizabeth defied her family and eloped with him in January of 1667. 

He was reputed to be among Nell Gwyn’s lovers, and they remained close throughout their lives. His affection for the theater extended to writing plays, scenes, and prologues for the stage, including the delightful sounding Sodom, of the Quintessence of Debauchery, which has never been definitively proven to be his. He trained actress Elizabeth Barry, who later became his mistress, and was one of the most renowned actresses of the period. 

Rochester giving his laurels to a cute monkey

Rochester was a renowned libertine, raising hell with a group of like-minded gentlemen referred to by Marvell as ‘The Merry Gang.” He told Gilbert Burnet that he had once been drunk for five years, and was almost certainly referring to the time he spent with them between 1668 and 1672. Among their numbers were the Earl of Dorset, the Earl of Mulgrave, Sir Charles Sedley, playwrights William Wycherly and George Etherege, and the Duke of Buckingham himself. Like many of his contemporaries, Rochester was bi-sexual, and spent his evenings (and mornings, and days) in the company of both sexes. Though Rochester doubtlessly loved his wife, he benefited from the sexual double standard that allowed men to please themselves as they saw fit while their wives remained, as Elizabeth did, at their homes in the country. His “extravagant frolics” with the libertines led to his banishment from court in 1669.

It was not the last time he was banished from court. He returned shortly thereafter, and was sent away again after Christmas on 1673 when he presented In the Isle of Britain, a satire poking fun at the King during the holiday festivities. He returned to court in February of the next year, only to be exiled again in June of 1675. 

After he fell out of favor again in 1676, he began to impersonate a fictional “Doctor Bendo,” specializing in infertility and gynecological disorders. According to Gilbert Burnet, Rochester personally cured a few patients of infertility. 

He died at age 33, almost certainly of syphilis. Gilbert Burnet reported that Rochester renounced his life of libertinism, but it’s debatable whether or not this actually happened, as his conversion may have been embellished by Burnet to improve his reputation. If it was, it worked. Burnet later became the Bishop of Salisbury. 

His wisdom did his happiness destroy,
Aiming to know that world he should enjoy.
And wit was his vain, frivolous pretense
Of pleasing others at his own expense.
For wits are treated just like common whores:
First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors.
The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains
That frights th’ enjoyer with succeeding pains.
Women and men of wit are dangerous tools,
And ever fatal to admiring fools:
Pleasure allures, and when the fops escape,
‘Tis not that they’re beloved, but fortunate,
And therefore what they fear, at heart they hate. (1)


Rochester appears as a peripheral character in Tyburn. Derby and Conley are active members of his band of libertines, and Sally’s friend, Bettie, is half in love with him. I tried to fit his appearances in the book within the timeline of his life, and though you don’t get to see inside his head in this book, you can feel the effects of Derby’s hangover following one of their “extravagant frolics.” I hope you enjoy it. 

(1) A Satyr against Reason and Mankind. You can read the full annotated text of the poem here
(2) James William Johnson. A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

*This is in no way a euphemism for orgasm. 

You can read more about syphilis in my post Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and the Sickness of Naples, and more about seventeenth century condoms and Rochester’s verse in praise of them in my post Love’s Pleasing paths in Blest Security: Condoms in Restoration London. 

Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and The Sickness of Naples

Syphilis. Woodcut series, 1496. The Virgin Mary
and Christ child bless the afflicted.

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been looking forward to this post. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m very interested in sex and contraception in history, so the history of venereal diseases is kind of where I live. Syphilis is my favorite. 

Okay, so if you were on the fence, now you’ve probably decided that I’m completely mental. How can someone have a favorite venereal disease? Stick with me here! Syphilis helped to shape the modern world through the measures taken to prevent it (such as the development condoms), and the effects it had on the mental health of influential people, both good and bad. No other venereal disease, as far as I’m aware, has ever been accused (with some justification) of creating genius

So let’s take a look. 

History

The first known case of syphilis was documented by Dr. Pintor in 1493 in Rome. He called it the Morbus Gallicus (The French Disease), and assumed that it had been carried to Italy by the French Army. When the French began to notice it, they called it mal de Naples (the sickness of Naples). Emperor Maximilian officially referred to it as malum franciscum in 1495, (1,3) but soon it was known by an altogether simpler name: 

The Pox. 

It was called this because of the noticeable effects the disease had on the skin of the afflicted, leaving lesions and decaying soft tissues that were sometimes mistaken for leprosy. The name syphilis comes from a Greek legend about a peasant Apollo had punished with poor health and lesions all over his body: the peasant’s name was Syphilus, and he could only be cured (rather chillingly) by Mercury. (1)

Syphilis. Durer, 1496.

The Disease

The first stage was a chancre on or near the genitals, followed by rashes and open sores during the second. The afflicted would experience pain with erection, swelling of the lymph glands, splitting headaches, and other pains throughout the body. At this point, the soft tissues of the nose and palate could begin to rot, and the teeth and hair would loosen and fall out. (3) Lesions and tumors could consume the nasal bones and the tissues of the face until the flesh was literally falling from the bones, sometimes even leaving the brain exposed to open air. (1,3)

If this stage was survived, the disease could lie dormant for up to 30 years, but could still be easily transmitted. If one was lucky enough to make it until the third and final stage of syphilis, they could look forward to madness and paralysis. 

It was seen as primarily a male problem, but no one was safe from it. It was often passed to unsuspecting spouses (and any children conceived) during periods of remission. (2) Often asymptomatic, it could go unnoticed for years, and could be passed on without any sexual contact at all; from parents to children, and from wet nurses to infants. It could even be transmitted through kissing or sharing cups. (1)

It was incredibly contagious and impossible to cure, and some historians estimate that as many as a fifth of the population may have been infected at any one time. (1)

Treatment

Syphilis was treated at the second stage with mercury in every form from enemas, ointments, and pills to steam baths or “sweats” in mercury vapor. This treatment was somewhat successful, although it was known even at the time to cause madness. Less common treatments included confining the afflicted to a sweat room to breathe guaiac vapor, “excising the sores and cauterizing the wounds,” and celibacy aided by the placement of nettles in one’s codpiece. (1)

Syphilis. Woodcut Series, 1496.


Where did it come from?

It is generally believed that Columbus had brought the disease back with him from the Americas. It existed in the Americas before Columbus arrived, and the timing certainly was convenient. Some Renaissance thinkers suspected it had something to do with astrology (see right and above left), while others thought it was derived from leprosy. Francis Bacon believed that it was a result of cannibalism. (1)

Outbursts of Genius and Madness

The tertiary stage of syphilis is well known to cause mental issues including creative genius and paranoid madness. Many of history’s greatest personalities had the disease, such as Cesare Borgia, Casanova, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and Beau Brummell, but so did larger-than-life figures such as Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ivan the Terrible, and maybe even Hitler. The jury’s out on how much influence the disease has on the creative process, but the manic bursts of divine inspiration it is known to have caused certainly must have had some effect on Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Keats, Manet, Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, and possibly Oscar Wilde. (2)

Was syphilis at least partially responsible for some of history’s greatest works of art? Maybe. Whichever side we choose in that particular debate, we can at least appreciate the prevalence of syphilis led to the development and popularization of condoms, and that’s no small achievement. 

Syphilis is actually a subject that comes up a couple of times in The Southwark Saga. Sally’s (fictional) friend, Bettie, has it in Tyburn, and so does his crush, the very non-fictional Earl of Rochester. In Virtue’s Lady, Lord Lewes, Jane’s betrothed, has it, and has buried multiple wives and children because of it. No wonder she wants to run away! It’s by no means a huge part of either book, but with one in five people in London being afflicted by it at any one point in time, it would be weird not to mention it.

For a really fantastic article on this subject, be sure to read Sarah Dunant’s piece, Syphilis, sex and fear: How the French disease conquered the world in the Guardian. 

You can also read Gabriello Fallopio’s 1564 treatise against syphilis, De Morbo Gallico (translation: About the French disease) online here.

Sources

1. Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London. 
2. Deborah Hayden, The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
3. Liza Picard, Restoration London.

Wrath of God or a Cosmic Fart? The Great Plague of 1665-1666

London in the year of the plague, 1665

The last epidemic of the bubonic plague hit London in 1665, killing at least 100,000 people, or a quarter of the city’s total population. 

Though it hasn’t really been seen since in Britain, the plague did not come out of nowhere. There had been four other outbreaks between 1560 and 1660, the most recent being in the 1620s. People read the weekly Bills of Mortality to count the deaths, the rich to decide whether it was wise to leave the city for the country to avoid it, and the tradesmen to see if they were likely to have any work. (1)

There were two types of plague, pneumonic and bubonic, and both came from the Yersenia pestis bacterium, which was carried by fleas. The pneumonic plague set in when the disease went straight to the lungs, and the afflicted would die within three days. With the bubonic plague, most common in 1665, it went to the lymph glands. After ten days of incubation, the lymph glands swelled into “buboes”, and usually killed the victim within five days, although there was about a thirty percent chance of survival. (1)

The Court left before they were in any real danger, withdrawing to the safety of Oxford, while the rest of London waited. 

“The face of London was now indeed strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected … sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise. London might well be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearest friends; but the voice of mourners was truly heard in the streets. The shrieks of women and children at the windows and doors of their houses, where their dearest relations were perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard as we passed the streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest heart in the world to hear them. Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.” (3)

The Bills of Mortality reported 68,596 deaths from the plague, but Pepys put the number closer to 100,000. A contemporary doctor thought the true number was closer to 200,000. (1)

A plague doctor. This one is Roman,
but the costume would have been
much the same. The “beaks” were filled
with fragrant herbs.


With the staggering number of deaths caused by the plague, human and animal (it was ordered that all cats and dogs in the city be put down), finding a place to bury the bodies became an issue. Most of the dead were still buried in churchyards, and the churchyards tried to accommodate them for as long as they could, stacking bodies on top of each other with or without coffins until every churchyard in London was filled with rotting, infected flesh. The smell must have been horrific. Soon the dead were put into enormous plague pits throughout the city. They’re still finding these today, so it’s impossible to say how many more remain below the city. 

Almanacs blamed the plague on “a cosmic fart”: “The pestilence generally derives its natural origin from a Crisis of the Earth whereby it purges itself by expiring those Arsenical Fumes that have been retained so long in her bowels.” (2)

Many people thought it was the wrath of God. Still others had claimed to see it coming in the bad omen of two comets that had appeared over the city in 1664:

“A blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after another, a little before the fire. The old women and the phlegmatic hypochondriac part of the other sex, whom I could almost call old women too, remarked (especially afterward, though not till both those judgements were over) that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone; that the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid colour, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow; but that the comet before the fire was bright and sparkling, or, as others said, flaming, and its motion swift and furious; and that, accordingly, one foretold a heavy judgement, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the plague; but the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swift, and fiery as the conflagration.” (3)

The Great Fire of 1666 did much to eradicate the plague from the city. So much of London was incinerated, fleas included. Stone houses replaced the wooden ones, and rats had a much harder time trying to get into these. The Rebuilding of London Act of 1666 ordered widened streets and banned open sewers, wooden houses, and overhanging upper levels, aiding sanitation and making the city less vulnerable to the spread of fire and disease. The overflowing churchyards proved the necessity for larger cemeteries further from the bulk of the population, and led to the establishment of the first formal cemeteries on the outskirts of town. 

For some truly terrifying reading, check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). You can read the whole thing here, courtesy of gutenberg.org. Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis is a wonderful history of death in London throughout the ages and the chapter on the plague might just give you nightmares (I would have used it here, but I loaned my copy to someone and they don’t want to give it back!). There’s also an interactive guide to London’s many plague pits on historic-uk.com here

Sources

1. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
2. R. Saunders. The English Apollo. London, 1666.
3. Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. 1722. 

Newgate: Welcome to Hell


From 1188 until 1777, Newgate Prison stood on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey in the City of London. Appearing in literature as far back as The Canterbury Tales, Newgate was a real hell on earth that struck terror into the people of London for more than 700 years. 

Originally a gate in the Roman wall, a prison was built on the site at the end of the twelfth century. According to medieval statute, it was managed by two elected sheriffs, who in turn rented the administration to private Keepers for money. Being a keeper or a gaoler was a very sought-after position. They took their payment directly from the inmates, which made it one of the best paying positions in London. 

The Keepers charged for everything. They charged inmates for entering the prison (as if they had a choice), for putting their shackles on, and for taking them off. Many charged up to four times the legal limit for these and for basic human needs such as food and water. Inmates commonly died of starvation, violence, or disease, such as Jail Fever (typhus). They were sent there for debt, dissent, and crimes of any scale from stealing a few pennies to murder. They were kept together in long, filthy cells with little daylight and no sanitation until they were freed, executed, or died.

On the other hand, if you had money to spend, you could stay in relative comfort in a private cell of your own with a bed, food, tobacco, newspapers, and perhaps some prison gin. Prostitutes regularly visited the prison and serviced the inmates for a price. Some keepers even had arrangements with the inmates to let them out at night on the condition that they would return and share anything they had stolen. 

Reading a list of Newgate’s famous inmates is like reading a who’s who of British history. Claude Duval was kept there from December of 1669 until his execution in January of 1670. An even more famous ladykiller, Giacomo Casanova, was kept there for a time for alleged bigamy. Sir Thomas Malory (yes, as in Le Morte d’Arthur), pirate Captain Kidd, highwayman James MacLaine, pickpocket and fence Moll Cutpurse, and even the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, all stayed in Newgate for a time. Jack Sheppard escaped twice. Daniel Defoe was imprisoned there as well, and in his Moll Flanders, the heroine is born there and later does time there herself. 

Newgate was moved and rebuilt in 1777. In 1783, executions were moved there from Tyburn, and the prison continued operating there until it was closed in 1902. 

This prison plays a big part in both Tyburn and Virtue’s Lady, and it’s no secret that Mark’s been inside a couple of times. For a good, hard look at Newgate from the inside (complete with cadavers, rats, and sexpest wardens), check out The Southwark Saga.