Contraception in Cookbooks: Herbal Family Planning in the Early Modern Period and Beyond

When condoms began to somewhat resemble their modern form in the sixteenth century, it was a result of centuries of trial and error. Venereal diseases had plagued people since the time immemorial, and various barrier methods had been tried with limited efficacy. Gabriele Falloppio’s De Morbo Gallico recommended wrapping up in linen sheaths soaked in salt. Other reusable condoms were made from sheep intestines that could be washed between uses, but they were tied on with ribbons, so…silver linings?

As you can imagine, these weren’t particularly effective. Madame de Sévigné described condoms as “an armor against enjoyment and a spiderweb against danger.” If they did succeed in preventing the spread of venereal disease, we can only assume it was because they put people off the idea of sex altogether.

Note that as different types of condoms were being developed, it was with the aim of preventing venereal disease, not pregnancy. Why not?

Because there was already something else available.

Eve’s Herbs

By the sixteenth century, herbal contraception and abortifacients had been fairly common for at least two thousand years, and their use wasn’t that big of a deal. Emmenagogues—herbs that stimulate menstruation when delayed for any reason—were common medicine. Physicians and monks provided them when needed, often as cures for non-specific “stomach issues” that plagued women. Saint Hildegard von Bingen wrote of the medical uses of abortifacient plants in the twelfth century, but she wasn’t the first scholar to tackle the subject.

In the first century AD, Dioscorides of Anazarbus published a medical text that included a list of plants that acted as contraceptives or abortifacients alongside treatments for common problems. The list and its accompanying recipes proved so useful that the text in its entirety continued to be copied and consulted for centuries. Both Galen and Pliny the Elder wrote on methods of limiting family size, and in the second century AD, Soranus’s four-volume work on women’s ailments, Peri Gynaikeion Biblia Tetra, showed an advanced understanding of the difference between contraception and abortion.

But for many in later years, the distinction was unclear and largely unimportant. During the Middle Ages, there was some debate about when life truly began—“ensoulment” at birth rather than conception—so contraception and abortion before about three months were seen as essentially the same thing. As it was something women tended to deal with on their own, it didn’t really concern anyone apart from the women, their medical providers, and their confessors. [Read more about the medieval moral view of abortion here]

The study of common plants with abortifacient properties continued for centuries, but those involved with medicine weren’t the only people preserving that knowledge. Women shared that information with each other, passing it between generations one person at a time until a more efficient method of communication became available.

W3271, frontispiece || engraved title page

Contraception in Cookbooks  

Knowledge of herbal abortifacients not only survived the Middle Ages, but it became more accessible as time went on. As books became more affordable to the general populace, what had mainly been shared between women and among physicians became available to anyone who could read. While family planning was still very much a private matter, coded recipes appeared in popular cookbooks.

Hannah Woolley was a kind of seventeenth century Martha Stewart, writing books on household management to support herself after her husband passed away in 1661. As a servant to a lady during her younger years, Woolley had picked up a number of recipes for food and home remedies as well as invaluable housekeeping tips. She became a household name after self-funding the publication of her first book in 1661, The Ladies Directory, followed by The Cook’s Guide shortly thereafter. Her books flew off the shelves and sold out of multiple printings.

Between the recipes for perfume and preserves, however, there was advice of a more sensitive nature. The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight—published in twelve editions between 1675 and 1720—contained the following:

    1. To bring down the Flowers.

Take of Alligant, Muskadine, or Claret

a pint, burn it, and sweeten it well

with Sugar, put thereto two spoonfuls

of Sallet-Oyl; then take a good Bead of

Amber in powder in a spoon, with some

of the Wine after it: Take this Evening

and Morning.

By the seventeenth century, “bringing down the flowers” was a common euphemism for abortion, or stimulating menstruation that was unexpectedly late. That this recipe was included in the early modern version of The Joy of Cooking gives us some indication of how abortion was viewed in practice: it was a women’s issue best left to women. As before, a woman wasn’t really regarded as pregnant until “quickening,” or the first detectable signs of fetal movement around three-to-five months into a pregnancy. As such, stimulating menstruation early enough was a non-issue.

Though she was respected as an amateur physician, Woolley didn’t concoct this recipe herself; there were more than two hundred plants with known abortifacient properties available in Britain, and this was only one combination. Recipes to “draw down the flowers” or “procure the months” were included in many common books of recipes and herbal remedies, and the ingredients for them could be found growing outdoors or purchased from an apothecary.

Those without access to these cookbooks or household herbals had other ways of finding the same information. Women shared these recipes with each other verbally, and “cunning women” and midwives could also be consulted.

In the 1560s, Elizabeth Francis of Chelmsford was reported as having visited her “grandmother Eve” in Hatfield Peverel, who advised her what herbs to drink to terminate her pregnancy. Alice Butcher reported that similar potions could be obtained from the apothecary in Warrington in 1612. In nineteenth-century Cambridgeshire, it was “Granny” Grey of Littleport to ask for pills of hemlock, rue, and pennyroyal.

Interestingly enough, many abortifacient herbs were anti-estrogenic, which made them effective at preventing pregnancy as well as ending it. A relative of silphium, Queen Anne’s Lace (also known as Wild Carrot) was recorded as a contraceptive as far back as ancient Rome, when its properties were documented by Soranus. Historian John Riddle has reported that the seeds of this plant are a potent contraceptive if harvested in autumn and chewed immediately after sex. Modern clinical studies do support this; the seeds contain estrogen and act as a progesterone blocker, effectively preventing pregnancy in animals.

Additionally, artemisia and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator,” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers. Like Queen Anne’s Lace, studies have confirmed that it works: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives.

Hannah Woolley loved it. Her books contain a number of wormwood recipes, including this one, which would have come out a lot like absinthe:

    1. To make Wormwood-Water

Take two Gallons of good Ale, a pound

of Anniseeds, half a pound of Licorise,

and beat them very fine; then take two

good handfuls of the Crops of Wormwood,

and put them into Ale, and let

them stand all Night, and let them stand

in a Limbeck with a moderate Fire.

Licorice is also known to be an effective emmenagogue; it has been used in Asian and Central American medicine for the same purpose. Likewise Artemisia, which is not without its side effects. Wormwood is known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can lead to seizures and kidney failure.

Juniper, an ingredient in gin—enduringly popular since the Gin Craze of the eighteenth century—has been used as a contraceptive since Ancient Rome. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all listed it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their works in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect similar to a natural miscarriage, so it could be used without detection.

Medievalpreg

Sit and Drink Pennyroyal Tea

Today most people probably know it from the Nirvana song, but pennyroyal tea has been used as an emmenagogue since antiquity. Aristophanes mentioned it in Lysistrata, and it appears in the Eleusinian Mysteries as kykeon, a ritual beverage drunk in the service of goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Pennyroyal is a fairly common variety of mint with a strong spearmint taste, and its abortifacient properties were known globally. One early depiction that leaves little to the imagination is this illustration of a midwife preparing pennyroyal tea for a pregnant woman in the thirteenth century (above). See that herb? That’s pennyroyal.

Clinical studies have proven its efficacy as an abortifacient, however, pennyroyal is extremely toxic, and it would have been very easy to overdose. Still, its potency and availability made it a very popular method of ending pregnancies.

Drinking pennyroyal tea for this purpose was so common by the early twentieth century that Dr. P.F. Braithwaite wrote a piece for the British Medical Journal in October of 1906 detailing one patient’s experience in hopes of dissuading people from trying it:

On August 5th at 8.15 p.m., I was sent for to see a young married woman who had suddenly been taken ill. It appeared that, having gone a week beyond her time for menstruating, she had taken some “pennyroyal tea,” an infusion she had made herself from threepennyworth of pennyroyal, with threepennyworth of rum added to it. This had no effect on her in any way, so, on the evening I saw her she had taken threepennyworth of “essence of pennyroyal,” procured at the nearest herbalist’s, again adding threepennyworth of rum. (…) Ten minutes after swallowing this essence she began to feel strange and started to go upstairs; feeling worse, however, she sat on the bottom step and began to retch. (…) She then became unconscious.

Dr. Braithwaite was able to revive the woman and induced vomiting with a mixture of mustard and hot water just as she was experience confusion and numbness in her extremities. Fortunately, she survived:

In view of the widespread habit, amongst women of the working classes, of taking preparations of pennyroyal, and their firm belief in the harmlessness of it, the case seemed to me worth recording, as serious illness was indubitably caused by it, even though recovery was never, perhaps, in doubt.

Pennyroyal is a kind of mint that is not particularly difficult to grow. It could be purchased around the world, and as Braithwaite mentions here, its concentrated essence was available without prescription at any herbalist’s shop. No longer just a tea, by the early twentieth century, it was an active ingredient in abortifacient pills around the world, as well as a potent insecticide.

Changing Laws

Abortion first became a criminal offence in Britain in 1803 under the Malicious Stabbings or Shooting Act, more commonly known as Lord Ellenborough’s Act. Though the act was mainly concerned with those assaulted by weapons, it officially changed when life was thought to begin—it was no longer at quickening, but conception. This was well before the Church, which not officially rule that life began at conception until 1869. Early stage abortion went from common practice to serious felony overnight. Organizing or abetting an abortion became a capital offense, so doctors who would have previously been sympathetic distanced themselves for their own protection. Once again, women were on their own.

As print media became increasingly accessible, advertisements for various mysterious-sounding women’s remedies began to appear in papers with increasing frequency. While once women might have had to visit the village “wise women” for assistance in identifying and preparing herbs, now those same concoctions were available in pill form through the mail. One popular brand was Widow Welch’s Pills. It would have contained a herbal abortifacient like pennyroyal, and it was sold as a cure for “female obstruction” into the twentieth century.

Similar to Widow Beecham's_pills_advertWelch’s were “French Periodical Pills,” “Farrer’s Catholic Pills,” and “Madame Drunette’s Lunar Pills,” also advertised in newspapers and women’s magazines. As in previous centuries, they were often advertised as menstrual regulators. In 1868, a medical journal writer replied to ads offering relief to women “temporarily indisposed” and discovered that more than half of them were discreetly advertising abortion. Beecham’s Pills (right) were marketed as a laxative from 1842, and the company spent nearly £100,000 on advertising by 1880, boasting that they sold six million boxes annually. Over-the-counter pills with the same active ingredients were available in Britain, Australia, Europe, and North America.

While abortions laws remained restrictive in Britain throughout the nineteenth century, they were not punished so severely in the United States. If caught, terminating a pregnancy within the first few months was at most a misdemeanor. Over-the-counter menstrual regulators like Widow Welch’s did very well in the States, and during the 1860s, abortion services were also available in bigger cities, including New York, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, it is estimated that a shocking 25% of all pregnancies in the United States ended in abortion.

Takeaways

Herbal contraception certainly had its drawbacks. For one thing, it wasn’t always effective. For another, it could prove to be fatal. Many herbs succeeded in inducing miscarriage because they were essentially poison taken in low doses. Taking them wouldn’t have been as simple or painless as taking a prescription contraceptive; it’s no coincidence that many early recipes to stimulate menstruation included opium or alcohol for the pain. That people continued to use them for thousands of years despite the risk of kidney failure, damage to the nervous system, cardiac arrest, or death only shows that despite legislation and social stigma, women have always found ways to control their own reproductive destinies.

Abstinence is not a workable solution, and it never has been. If anyone tries to tell you that people in the past simply did not have sex unless it was for procreation and that contraception of any kind didn’t exist, remember Hannah Woolley. Imagine her books selling out, printing after printing until they reached kitchens across Britain and beyond, providing the recipes many women needed but no one ever talked about. Remember that sourcing pennyroyal was as easy as going to the market. Think of Widow Welch’s and the dozens of other over-the-counter menstrual regulators that sold by the millions well into the twentieth century.

People have always liked sex and, for good or ill, found ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Sex in history isn’t always as it appears, and even the most devout, respected, well-behaved figures had their secrets.

Jessica Cale

 

Sources

Braithwaite, P. F. “A Case Of Poisoning By Pennyroyal: Recovery.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 2388, 1906.

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).

Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675.

Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Chamberlain, Geoffrey. British Maternal Mortality in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2006 Nov; 99(11).

Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.

Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages.

Hobson, James. Dark Days of Georgian Britain: Rethinking the Regency.

Nelson, Sarah E. “Persephone’s Seeds: Abortifacients and Contraceptives in Ancient Greek Medicine and Their Recent Scientific Appraisal.” Pharmacy in History, vol. 51, no. 2, 2009.

Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996.

Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696, Issue 1996.

Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West.

Sweet, Victoria. Hildegard of Bingen and the Greening of Medieval Medicine. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 73, no. 3, 1999.

Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History.

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

Falloppio, Gabriele. De Morbo Gallico.

Woolley, Hannah. The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight. 1670.

On The Famous Voyage: Finding London’s Lost River

the fleet by samuel scott

The Fleet River. Samuel Scott, 1750.

London’s major river is, of course, the Thames but, as the capital’s antiquarians will tell you, there are more than a dozen ancient tributaries hidden beneath the surface of the modern metropolis. The largest of these smaller rivers is the River Fleet, which flows from the largest stretch of common green in London, at Hampstead Heath, to Blackfriars Bridge, where it enters the Thames. This is a journey, not just from North London to the River, but also through the history of the City from Ancient to Modern times, marking some colourful characters and encompassing some bewildering changes along the way.

Cities are typically built along rivers to provide drinking water, transport, defense, and sewage removal. The Fleet has served all of these functions over London’s long history. As place-names along its banks (Brideswell, Clerkenwell) suggest, many wells were built along the Fleet in Roman and Saxon times, although, as we shall see, the purity of its waters were not set to be a defining feature as London grew.

The Fleet (‘tidal inlet’ in Anglo-Saxon) initially provided a waterway which served London from the North and, in a later incarnation as the New Canal, was part of the network which brought coal from the North of England to fuel the rapidly industrializing London of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even after the canals were superseded by road and rail and entirely covered over in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the valley carved by the Fleet continued to form the basis for some of London’s modern arteries, such as Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway line (although it resisted having an underground railway line–that which would become the Jubilee Line–lain beneath it by repeatedly flooding tunnels).

Defensively, the Fleet has a rather inglorious history. It is unclear how the Fleet was utilized by the Romans and it seems rarely to have been called upon subsequently. A second century boat carrying ragstone (possibly intended for building the city wall) was discovered in 1962, sunk at the mouth of the river.

Much later, the Fleet’s banks were built up into earthworks during the Civil War, when London was very much a Parliamentarian (‘Roundhead’) stronghold. The Royalist armies, however, never threatened the capital, with Charles II’s return to the City being by invitation rather than by conquest. During one of the great crises of the restored king’s reign in 1666, desperate Londoners were hopeful that the Fleet would provide an effective break against the Great Fire as it reached its third day. Here the Fleet proved as ineffective as the civic defenses and the Fire jumped the Fleet ditch, ultimately allowing it to claim St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, the most serious modern military threat to London came from the air in the form of the Luftwaffe. The old river beneath Fleet Street could offer no protection when Serjeant’s Inn, one of the oldest legal precincts in England, was destroyed during the Blitz.

It is with the removal of sewage and other waste, or at least with its failure to do so effectively, with which the Fleet is most famously associated. As London grew, the Fleet increasingly became a repository for whatever the city’s inhabitants wanted to get rid of. The medieval meat markets which grew up to feed the expanding population soon became problematic and in 1290 the Carmelite monks complained that the offal deposited in the river by butchers at a nearby market (the delightfully-named Shambles, at Newgate) was constantly blocking what was, at this point, a stream.

Copperplate_map_Fleet

The southern end of the Fleet, 1550s.

Although all manner of industries poured waste into the Fleet, it was the offal and dead animals in various forms which seemed to catch the imagination of early modern satirists of the capital. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1612) mock-epic poem which lends its title to this article was a litany of classical references intertwined with toilet humour and social satire and described the diverse pollutants of the river with considerable gusto:

Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,
That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,
The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,
To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,
Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.
For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.

Jonson’s influence and the continued assault of the Fleet upon the senses continued into the eighteenth century: Jonathan Swift’s “Drown’d Puppies” and “Dead Cats” of 1710’s A Description of a City Shower, floating amongst the offal and turnip-tops, were echoed by Alexander Pope’s “large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames” in 1728’s Dunciad.

The enthusiasm of these men for describing the sewage, of which the Fleet’s waters seemed largely comprised, was hardly less. Jonson’s ‘voyage’ was taken down a river where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”. His Fleet contained the contents of every ‘night-tub’ from an overcrowded metropolis, where “each privy’s seat/ Is filled with buttock” and the very “walls do sweat Urine”. This state of affairs is compounded by the diet of a city where “every clerk eats artichokes, and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat”. In 1700, Thomas Brown has his narrator, an ‘Indian’ revealing the strange “Manners, Customs, and Religions” practiced by the various “Nations” of London to his readers, shove an impudent rag-seller into the kennel [1] in the centre of the street with the words:

Tho’ I want nothing out of your Shops, methinks you all want good Manners and Civility, that are ready to tear a New Sute (suit) from my Back, under pretence of selling me an Olde one; Avant Vermin, your Cloaths smell as rankly of Newgate and Tyburn, as the bedding to be sold at the Ditch-side near Fleet-Bridge, smells of Bawdy-House and Brandy.

Brown’s tone is lighthearted and playful, but some of the associations he makes are telling. The visceral nature of these accounts certainly reflected a literal reality but they also had a metaphorical dimension in which it was the excesses and vices of London itself which were clogging up its abused waterways. The writers were playing, not just on the Fleet’s role in waste disposal, but also on the reputation of those who occupied its banks. In Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower, in particular, a storm washing through London links the different areas and strata of the city together through its flow.

The Fleet flowed past Bridewell and the Fleet prisons and through areas such as Clerkenwell, notorious for sheltering heretics, thieves, and prostitutes from the arms of the law. Here the bodies floating downstream alongside the unfortunate cats and dogs might be human. The industries around the river were messy and disease was known to cling to its slums. The Dunciad plays on the Fleet’s use as an open sewer by having the hack-writers, who are one of the principal subjects of Pope’s ire, swim in it. The implication was as clear as Pope’s Fleet was ‘muddy’. Much later, Charles Dickens’ child-warping pick-pocket, Fagin, would have his den alongside the Fleet.

From the early attempts by the Carmelites to keep the river unblocked to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century attempt to make it serve as a canal, the smell and the constant need for dredging could not be overcome. So impossible was it to contain the flood of effluent that, even after the river was paved over during the later part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, the build-up of trapped gas exploded near Blackfriars in 1846, taking out three posthouses and a steamboat in the process. It must have seemed as though the truth would not be hidden beneath the streets. Eventually, however, the Great Stink of 1858 preceded a concerted effort to enclose the city’s sewers and a London more familiar to us today emerged.

Dr. J.V.P. Jenkins is a historian and freelance editor from London. He earned his BA, Master’s, and Doctorate at Swansea University. He is the new co-editor of Dirty, Sexy History and sometimes tweets @JVPolsomJenkins.

Sources

Brown, Thomas. Amusements serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London (1700)
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (1839)
Jonson, Ben. On The Famous Voyage (c.1612)
Pope, Alexander. Dunciad (1728)
Swift, Jonathan. A Description of a City Shower (1710)
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography (Anchor; New York, 2003)
Brown, Laura. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell U.P., 2003)
Gray, Robert. A History of London (Taplinger; New York, 1979)

[1] An open gutter, running down the middle of the street. The 1671 Sewage and Paving Act had prescribed moving the kennel from the center of the street to an open side drain set off by a raised pavement. The main thoroughfares were also to be cambered (built up in middle for drainage and paved) but these measures were not instantly applied to all streets.

English Horrors Through the Eyes of a French Romantic

Not long ago a fellow Historical Novel Society member was lamenting the fact that the Stuart dynasty does not get enough exposure. I see the tide turning. More and more English history novels are set during the English Civil War and the Cromwellian era. Let’s not forget some of the 19th century classics who drew inspiration from that time period. Everyone knows Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. However, not as many readers are familiar with Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit.

The Man Who Laughs is Victor Hugo’s last exile novel written over the course of fifteen months. This novel did not receive nearly as much fame as Notre-Dame de Paris or Les Misérables did. “Serious” critics condemn The Man Who Laughs for its brutalities and absurdities. Ordinary readers often brand this novel as a Two-Beauties-and-the-Beast story.

The protagonist, Gwynplaine, is a disfigured sideshow performer whose face had been carved into a perpetual grin by an amoral surgeon who made a fortune creating monsters. Gwynplaine is coveted by two beauties, one of which is Dea, a blind actress and a childhood friend who only perceives his noble soul while remaining oblivious to his outward deformity, and the other Josiana, a spoiled duchess who yearns to escape the stagnant routine of the royal court by taking a hideous mountebank for a lover.
hugo-gwynplaine

This bizarre love triangle is what most readers remember from the novel. There is a lengthy and graphic seduction scene that many readers revisit time after time. Although disturbing, this scene is a stunning segment of extremely articulate and sensual prose. However, there are equally articulate, if less arousing, passages that deal with English history and politics.

Unfortunately, many readers skip over those passages. The political component in the novel is just as significant as the romantic one. Hugo did not include politics and history to divert the story line. Politics and romance were not intended to rival but to complement each other.

The protagonist’s pseudo-Celtic name, presumably derived from the Welsh word “gwyn” for “white,” connotes innocence and purity. The Celtic origin of the name also suggests estrangement from the English culture.

Very few readers remember the reason why the protagonist was disfigured in the first place. Gwynplaine’s natural father remained a supporter of the Republic even after the Restoration. The hapless child and his father are both depicted as victims of monarchy. First Charles II exiles the father, and later James II sanctions the kidnapping and the disfigurement of the child.

In the novel, Cromwell himself never makes a personal appearance. We learn about him by examining the lives of those who had outlived him. The action takes place well after Cromwell’s death, from 1690 to 1705.

Hugo devotes an entire chapter to the protagonist’s natural father, a fictitious rebel lord by the name of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Baron Clancharlie and Hunkerville, one of the few lords who remained loyal to the Republic even after the fall of Cromwell. Refusing to accept the return of Stuarts to the throne, Lord Clancharlie flees to Switzerland and marries Anne Bradshaw, a fictitious daughter of John Bradshaw, one of the key regicides.

Gwynplaine, whose real name is Fermain, is the fruit of this marriage and the only legitimate heir to his father’s estates. Back in England Lord Clancharlie also has an illegitimate son David with Lady Dirry-Moir, a Scottish noblewoman who refused to follow him to Switzerland and chose to give herself to Charles II.

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Lord Chancharlie in the 1928 film adaptation

Hugo goes to great lengths describing the plight of Lord Clancharlie and the utter lack of sympathy from his former friends who pledged allegiance to the Stuart dynasty after the Restoration.

Linnaeus Baron Clancharlie, a contemporary of Cromwell, was one of the peers of England — few in number, be it said — who accepted the republic. It was a matter of course that Lord Clancharlie should adhere to the republic, as long as the republic had the upper hand; but after the close of the revolution and the fall of the parliamentary government, Lord Clancharlie had persisted in his fidelity to it.

Hugo describes the euphoria that engulfed England after the Restoration:

England was happy; a restoration is as the reconciliation of husband and wife, prince and nation return to each other, no state can be more graceful or more pleasant. Great Britain beamed with joy; to have a king at all was a good deal — but furthermore, the king was a charming one. Charles II was amiable — a man of pleasure, yet able to govern; and great, if not after the fashion of Louis XIV. He was essentially a gentleman.

Lord Clancharlie, who refuses to partake in this jubilation, is regarded as a madman by his contemporaries.

Plainly a dupe and traitor in one. Let a man be as great a fool as he likes, so that he does not set a bad example. Fools need only be civil, and in consideration thereof they may aim at being the basis of monarchies. The narrowness of Clancharlie’s mind was incomprehensible. His eyes were still dazzled by the phantasmagoria of the revolution. He had allowed himself to be taken in by the republic — yes; and cast out. He was an affront to his country.

Hugo mentions George Monk, 1st Duke of Albemarle (1608-1669), the “prodigal son” of English monarchy, who originally supported Richard Cromwell but then was instrumental in restoring the Stuarts to the throne. Linnaeus Clancharlie’s “madness” and treachery are juxtaposed to Monk’s “wisdom”:

Take Monk’s case. He commands the republican army. Charles II, having been informed of his honesty, writes to him. Monk, who combines virtue with tact, dissimulates at first, then suddenly at the head of his troops dissolves the rebel parliament, and re-establishes the king on the throne. Monk is created Duke of Albemarle, has the honour of having saved society, becomes very rich, sheds a glory over his own time, is created Knight of the Garter, and has the prospect of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Such glory is the reward of British fidelity!

mjneary

Ursus, illustration from 1870 edition

It is important to stress that it is the post-Restoration society that views Linnaeus Clancharlie as a madman. Hugo himself views his hero as a martyr. Hugo’s loyalties invariably lie on the side of the outcast. He had always sympathized with those who were ridiculed by the masses. Because Hugo himself was living in exile while writing The Man Who Laughs, it is obvious that Lord Clancharlie’s fate parallels his own. Hugo presents Linnaeus Clancharlie as a man of principle, someone who chose exile and ridicule over communion with those whose political views he did not share.

Ursus, the foster-father of the protagonist, claims to be as a supporter of monarchy throughout the novel, but does so for unique reasons. Being a self-proclaimed misanthrope, he cannot possibly be a patriot. He accepts monarchy and overall social hierarchy as status quo, as a natural state of things. Inside his caravan, Ursus keeps a roster with the names of English aristocrats and detailed description of their respective estates. Next to Lord Clancharlie’s name he has a handwritten note: “Rebel; in exile; houses, lands, and chattels sequestrated. It is well.”

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Josiana in Paul Leni’s 1928 adaptation

When Gwynplaine makes a comment about the image of Queen Anne on a coin representing oppression, Ursus scolds him for insolence. “Watch over your abominable jaws. There is a rule for the great — to do nothing; and a rule for the small — to say nothing. The poor man has but one friend, silence.” It is apparent from this passage that it is not patriotism that compels Ursus to defend the Queen. The old man promotes silence and humility merely for the sake of one’s safety.

Later, when Lady Josiana attends a performance of Chaos Vanquished, an amateur play in which Gwynplaine plays the leading role, Ursus exclaims: “She is more than a goddess. She is a duchess.” This statement implies that, in Ursus’ understanding, secular hierarchy overrides divine laws. This very statement awakens suspicion and insecurity in Dea, whose name incidentally means “goddess” in Latin. The blind girl becomes aware of her inferiority to the brilliant socialite.

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Gwynplaine’s speech at the House of Lords. 19th century illustration

When Gwynplaine learns about his aristocratic origin and enters the House of Lords, he expresses his indignation with monarchy before his peers. In his speech addressed to the lords, Gwynplaine speaks rather unfavorably of the two kings who came after Cromwell. He also condemns, quite brazenly, Lady Dirry-Moir, his father’s former mistress who chose to take the side of Charles II:

How I execrate kings! And how shameless are the women! I have been told a sad story. How I hate Charles II! A woman whom my father loved gave herself to that king whilst my father was dying in exile. The prostitute! Charles II, James II! After a scamp, a scoundrel. What is there in a king? A man, feeble and contemptible, subject to wants and infirmities. Of what good is a king? You cultivate that parasite royalty; you make a serpent of that worm, a dragon of that insect.

Furthermore, Gwynplaine expresses nostalgia for the era he had not lived through himself but one that his father had witnessed. He brings up the Republic as a form of earthly paradise:

There will come an hour when convulsion shall break down your oppression; when an angry roar will reply to your jeers. Nay, that hour did come! Thou wert of it, O my father! That hour of God did come, and was called the Republic! It was destroyed, but it will return. Meanwhile, remember that the line of kings armed with the sword was broken by Cromwell, armed with the axe. Tremble!

Gwynplaine’s reference to Cromwell amuses the lords, because in 1705 monarchy was not in danger. Revolution was not a realistic menace. Cromwell was but a distant memory. A significant component of Gwynplaine tragedy is that he is fighting for a hopeless cause. The lords whom he addresses with such passion and indignation realize the security of their situation. Like his natural father, Lord Clancharlie, Gwynplaine is just a madman in the eyes of the English aristocracy.

The novel ends tragically. After being ridiculed and insulted by the lords, Gwynplaine flees the Parliament in hopes to return to his old life as an entertainer. For a brief moment he reunites with his old family, Ursus and Dea, only to find that the girl is deadly ill. When Dea dies in his arms, Gwynplaine throws themanwholaughsposterhimself in the Thames and drowns.

There have been several theatrical and cinematic adaptations of The Man Who Laughs of varying success and quality. Not all of them highlight the political nuances of the original novel. Two screen adaptations particularly stand out: the 1928 silent film by Paul Leni and the 1971 French miniseries by Jean Kerchbron.

The 1928 version opens with a scene of Lord Clancharlie’s execution that is not described in the novel, but the rest of the film focuses primarily on the love story and the concept of universal justice. The English monarchy is ridiculed rather than criticized. To please the audience, the director chooses a happy ending. The young lovers, their aging foster-father and the pet wolf all reunite and sail off to France.

The 1971 version is a less known but more thorough and faithful adaptation. There are several graphic torture scenes that are taken directly from the novel.

Gwynplaine’s speech in the Parliament is also taken from the original text almost word for word. All historical references to Cromwell and the Republic were included. Kerchbron believed it important to preserve the political context, without which much of Hugo’s message would be lost. Taking republican politics out of The Man Who Laughs is like taking Gothic architecture out of Notre-Dame de Paris. Kerchbron’s faithfulness to the original text is commendable.

M. J. Neary 

16958_321447571977_6886780_nAn only child of classical musicians, M.J. Neary is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed expert on military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. Notable achievements include a trilogy revolving the Anglo-Irish conflict, including Never Be at Peace, a novel of Irish rebels. She continues to explore the topic of ethnic tension in her autobiographical satire Saved by the Bang: a Nuclear Comedy.

Her latest release is a cyber mystery Trench Coat Pal set in Westport, CT at the dawn of the internet era. Colored with the same dark misanthropic humor as the rest of Neary’s works, Trench Coat Pal features a cast of delusional and forlorn New Englanders who become pawns in an impromptu revenge scheme devised by a self-proclaimed Robin Hood. A revised edition of Wynfield’s Kingdom, her debut Neo-Victorian thriller, was recently released through Crossroad Press. Wynfield’s War is the sequel following the volatile protagonist to the Crimea. Set in 1910 Ireland, Big Hero of a Small Country is a tragic and violent tale of a family ravaged by an ideological conflict. You can visit her blog here.

GIVEAWAY: Comment below to win an e-book copy of Wynfield’s Kingdom

The Star Chamber: Corrupt Legal Practices and the Origin of Habeas Corpus

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Engraving of The Star Chamber from Old and New London (1873)

“The Star Chamber” reached such a level of infamy during the reign of Charles I that the term “Star Chamber” still exists in our idiom today. It is generally used to denote any judicial or quasi-judicial action, trial, or hearing which so grossly violates standards of “due process” that a party appearing in the proceedings (hearing or trial) is denied a fair hearing.

The Star Chamber actually has its origins in the fourteenth century and is said to have derived from a room in the Palace of Westminster decorated with a starred ceiling where the King and his privy council met. Initially it served the valuable role as a “conciliar court” which was convened at short notice to deal with urgent matters. Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility, it was made up of Privy Counselors, as well as common-law judges, and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. In a sense, the court was a supervisory body, overseeing the operations of lower courts, though its members could hear cases by direct appeal as well. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes.

In 1487, a Star Chamber Act was enacted setting up a special tribunal to deal with subversive activities within the King’s household. In theory the Star Chamber could only take cognisance of a matter if there was a good reason to interfere with the ordinary processes of law. In practice it meant that it heard cases and imposed punishments in matters where no actual crime had been committed but, in the subjective opinion of the court, were considered morally reprehensible. The sort of matters coming before it would now constitute offences such as conspiracy, libel, forgery, perjury, riot, conspiracy, and sedition. Henry VII and Henry VIII, in particular, used the power of the Star Chamber to break the powerful nobles who opposed their reigns. Prosecutions were brought by the Attorney General and prisoners tried summarily by affidavit and interrogation (which very often included torture). Punishments included fines, imprisonment, pillory, branding or loss of an ear. It did not have the power to order a death sentence.

The Court’s more sinister side began to emerge by the end of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century, when it began to lose its “civil” side and, notwithstanding its inability to mete out death, by the reign of Charles I, the Star Chamber had achieved a terrible reputation for severity and tyranny.

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Charles I. Wenceslaus Hollar, 1644.

Charles I routinely used the Star Chamber to examine cases of sedition, which meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. It came to be used to try nobles too powerful to be brought to trial in the lower court. During the time of Charles’ “personal rule” he ruthlessly stamped down on the freedom of the press and religious and political dissenters. William Prynne, Alexander Leighton, John Bastwick, and Henry Burton all appeared before the Star Chamber for their views on religious dissent. William Prynne, for example, was a puritan who published a number of tracts opposing religious feast days and entertainment such as stage plays. The latter was construed as a direct attack on the Queen and in 1634 he was sentenced in the Star Chamber to life imprisonment, a fine of £5000, he was stripped of his qualifications and membership of Lincolns Inn, and lost both his ears in the pillory.

It was the treatment of John Lilburne that eventually led to the abolition of the Star Chamber. Lilburne was a Leveller* (“Free born John”). In 1637, he was arrested for publishing unlicensed books (one of them by William Prynne). At the time, all printing presses had to be officially licensed. In his examinations in the Star Chamber, he refused to take the oath known as the ‘ex-officio’ oath** (on the ground that he was not bound to incriminate himself), and thus called in question the court’s usual procedure. On 13 February, 1638, he was sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned till he obeyed.

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John Lilburne, as depicted on the cover of the Leveller pamphlet “The Liberty of the Freeborne English-Man” (1646)

On 18 April, 1638, Lilburne was flogged with a three-thonged whip on his bare back as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors, while distributing more unlicensed literature to the crowds. He was then gagged. Finally, he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned. During his imprisonment in Fleet, he was cruelly treated. While in prison, he however managed to write and to get printed in 1638 an account of his own punishment styled The Work of the Beast and in 1639 an apology*** for separation from the Church of England, entitled Come out of her, my people. John spent the next few years going back and forth between the Star Chamber and prison.

In 1640, the King’s personal rule ended and he was forced to reconvene Parliament. Incensed by John Lilburne’s treatment at the hands of the Star Court, John Pym led a campaign to abolish it, and in 1640, one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the western world was enacted: the Habeas Corpus Act. This Act abolished the Star Chamber and declared that anyone imprisoned by order of the king, privy council, or any councilor could apply for a writ of habeas corpus (literally meaning “release the body”) and it required that all returns to the writ “certify the true cause” of imprisonment. It also clarified that the Court of Common Pleas had jurisdiction to issue the writ in such cases (prior to which it was argued that only the King’s Bench could issue the writ). On this statute stands our basic right to a fair trial.

Physically the Star Chamber stood in the precinct of the Westminster Palace until its demolition in 1806.

References:

Baker, J.H. An Introduction to English Legal History.

Luminarium Encyclopedia Project. The Court of the Star Chamber.

Wikipedia: Star Chamber

feathersinthewindfinalAbout Alison Stuart

Award winning historical fiction author, Alison Stuart, is a former lawyer with experience in the military and emergency services. She has a passion for the period of the English Civil War and her latest English Civil War set story And Then Mine Enemy is now available in all reputable online stores. Visit Alison’s website at www.alisonstuart.com.

To celebrate the release of And Then Mine Enemy, Alison is running a Rafflecopter contest to give away a $20 Amazon gift card. Click here to enter.

Editor’s Notes for additional context

*  “Levellers” was a perjorative term applied to a group of London radicals agitating for greater spiritual and social equality during the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars.  They went on to become particularly influential in the Parliamentary army but their demands for extensions of religious freedom and the franchise were ultimately suppressed by their own officers.  The extent to which the Levellers constituted precursors to modern socialists or democrats has been a source of historical debate but they have certainly attracted a degree of symbolic importance among the British left since the 1960s, as summarized in this article by the late politician, Tony Benn

**  The ex officio oath was one imposed on the defendant directly by the official (judge) and requiring them to swear to God to give a truthful account on pain of perjory (for lying) or contempt of court (for remaining silent).  The oath was often used by Tudor and Stuart courts to trap religious nonconformists into incriminating themselves but was increasingly resisted by men like Lilburne and ultimately abolished by the legal minds of the victorious Civil War Parliament.  Historians, such as B. J. Shapiro, have considered the importance of the solemn oath in early modern England.  John Spurr, meanwhile, offers a parallel history of profane oaths (swearing).

***  An ‘apology’ in this context was a work making the case for a particular position, not an expression of contrition.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Levellers, the Online Library of Liberty has an excellent selection of their pamphlets you can read online here. -Eds