Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung

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Cleopatra. John William Waterhouse, 1888.

Ancient Egypt was a remarkably advanced society. They had one of the first known written languages, the earliest form of paper, a 365-day calendar, toothpaste, and breath mints. Egyptians even invented eye makeup as far back as 4000 BC by combining soot and galena to create kohl. It was worn by both men and women for status as well to protect the wearer from the evil eye.

Preferring small families, they also invented enough different methods of contraception that you’d be forgiven for wondering if someone in a TARDIS gifted them with the secrets of the universe (or at least a modern health textbook).

For those who were really serious about avoiding pregnancy, hieroglyphs from the second century CE recommend castration for either gender. Surgeries such as the ovariotomy (the removal of the ovaries) were also available, if mercifully rare.

Most people depended on much less invasive forms of contraception. One of the most common was spermicide administered in a sort of tampon made of linen and soaked in acidic oils. Some minerals found in the water also had spermicidal properties when mixed with sour milk, which had the added benefit of making the vagina more acidic to make conception less likely.

Pessaries blocking the entrance to the cervix altogether could be made from the sap of the acacia tree, another natural substance with proven spermicidal properties. The modern equivalent of this would be using a diaphragm with nonoxynol-9. For a back-up method, certain plant extracts could be eaten to alter hormonal balance and inhibit ovulation, much like the birth control pills used today.

For the more adventurous woman, a medical papyrus from 1850 BCE assures us that: “Crocodile dung mixed with honey and placed in the vagina of a woman prevents contraception…”

I can only assume that this one worked by putting all parties off of sex altogether.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians had not yet invented statistics to help us to quantify the success rate of these methods, but in the event that they failed, the recipes for herbal abortificients were passed down from generation to generation.

If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, the Egyptians even had the first urine-based pregnancy test. Women were told to pee on some barley and emmer every day and if they grew, she was pregnant. Amazingly enough, modern tests have actually confirmed that this was a fairly accurate way to detect pregnancy.

Sadly, this kind of pregnancy test fell into disuse and the next one was not introduced until 1929.

Condoms even existed, but they were more for show than contraception. Many have been found in the tombs of aristocrats for use in the next world. Fully prepared for one crazy party, they were entombed with sheaths made of animal skin dyed bright colors and trimmed in fur.

Also strap-ons made of mother of pearl. You know, just in case.

 Jessica Cale

Historical Underwear and the Surprising Thing Used to Clean It (Hint: It Starts with a U)

[From the archives] Okay, so we’ve had a lot of posts lately that have been on the serious side (fire, plague, syphilis, under-paying jobs), so for a change of pace, I thought I’d write about something a little more fun.

Underwear!

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15th century. Yes, really. (University of Innsbruck)

What’s not to like? Everyone knows that the best part of costume dramas in the historically accurate underwear (that can’t just be me). Fans of historical anything will already be so familiar with corsets that you might feel like you know your way in and out of one, but what about the rest?

Underwear is a surprisingly tricky subject. You’ll often hear that people just didn’t wear any, but that wasn’t always the case. Charles II wore one of the world’s first versions of silk boxer shorts to bed–would you expect anything less?–and Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth, is noted to have worn “drawers.” While it’s true that seventeenth century undergarments were a long way off from Victoria’s Secret, they were very common and almost always the cleanest thing a person wore. It was extremely difficult to clean many finer items of clothing, and people depended in part on frequent changes of undergarments such as shifts to preserve the more expensive outer layers.

As Lucy Worsley writes in If Walls Could Talk:

“In the Tudor or Stuart concept of hygiene, clean underwear played an important part. The wearing of clean linen next to the skin was considered essential in the ‘dirty’ centuries. People thought it was dangerous to immerse their bodies in water but perfectly safe to use linen to absorb the body’s juices, and then to wash the linen regularly. In fact, a show of brilliant white linen at the collar and cuffs was important to publicise the cleanliness of your body–and. by implication, the purity of your mind.”

The brighter the linen, the cleaner the mind. So how did they maintain the extraordinarily bright whites seen in portraits (apart from being kind to their painters)?

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15th Century tie-on underwear, not unlike something you could find at Ann Summers. Probably used for menstruation. (University of Innsbruck)

Urine!

That’s right, the second U of the day was used a stain remover right up until the twentieth century. Garments were scrubbed with a soap made of lye before the dirt was beaten out of them and they were hung in the sun to dry, ideally over sweet-smelling rosemary or hawthorn bushes. But for tough stains, you couldn’t beat urine. Satisfying as it might be, surely just peeing on one’s employer’s clothes would be too easy. So how was it done?

“Lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.”
-Hannah Woolley, 1670

As you can see, sometimes it took quite a lot to do the job. Housemaids would even reserve urine from the house’s chamber pots for this specific purpose. Effective as it must have been, I can’t help but wonder how much lye and rosemary it took to neutralize the smell.

If that didn’t work, there was always perfume.

Perfume, pomanders, and scented washballs, waters, and other cosmetics were extremely popular and available in every scent imaginable from rosewater to civet (a musk from a wild cat). Although Worsley warns us about the perceived dangers of bathing, Sally Pointer assures us that both sexes bathed in scented flower waters regularly, so the situation was probably not as dire as you might imagine.

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Unidentified tailor, Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1570. Notice the pristine white ruffles under his doublet. Someone knows the secret to keeping their whites whiter.

For a bonus U: Giovanni Battista Moroni’s unidentified tailor (1570). This has very little to do with underwear (see caption), but I found him when looking for photos for you and thought you’d earned something pretty to look at after that syphilis post.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty

Woolley, Hannah. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1670).

Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk.

Executioner, Death, or The Devil Himself? The Legend of Jack Ketch

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Jack Ketch in the Plotter’s Ballad (1678-9). Ketch is seen right of center holding a rope and an axe.

[From the archives] Jack Ketch, otherwise known as John Ketch or Richard Jaquet, began his twenty-three year career as London’s leading executioner in 1663. He was not the only executioner dispatching the condemned at Tyburn, but he was the most infamous, earning a reputation for brutality remarkable even for a man in his profession. After his death in 1686, his name became slang for any executioner, the devil, and even death itself. Over time, his reputation took on such epic proportions that he became a sort of bogeyman. So who was he?

Like many executioners, Ketch spent much of his early life on the wrong side of the law, and is known to have spent time in Marshalsea Prison. Little is definitively known about his origins. He is first mentioned in the Old Bailey proceedings in January 1676 in the case of a man who was executed for a murder taking place in Whitechapel, and who also killed the bailiff charged with arresting him. The mention is a small one, but the meaning is clear: “the jury brought him in guilty, and Jack Ketch will make him free”.

after Francis Barlow, line engraving, 1679

Coleman drawn to his execution. Francis Barlow, 1679

The first public reference to him appeared in the broadside The Plotters Ballad two years later. In the Receipt for the Cure of Traytrous Recusants, or Wholesome Physicke for Popish Contagion, he is represented in a woodcut depicting the execution of Edward Coleman. Accused by Titus Oates of being involved in a “Popish Plot”, he was executed for treason in December 1678. In the woodcut, Coleman is saying “I am sick of this traitorous disease.” Ketch, illustrated holding a rope and an axe, replies, “Here’s your cure sir.” (see top)

Ketch was paid for his services, and went on strike in 1682 for better wages and won. In addition to his wages, he received bribes, but he would have made most of his money by selling off pieces of the condemned. As a matter of course, executioners were given the clothes of the dead and the rope, which they sold for significant profit. A used noose could be sold for as much as a shilling an inch.

Grizzly as it sounds, execution paraphernalia was widely believed to carry serious magic and was in high demand. Even so much as a strand of a hangman’s rope was believed to cure any number of ailments when it was worn around the neck, and gamblers sought pieces to improve their luck. Nooses had been used to cure headaches by wrapping them around the temples of the afflicted since ancient Rome. The efficacy of these cures was not in question, and the public was willing to pay for whatever they could get.

Jack Ketch had a reputation of brutality and incompetence, but the truth might be more complicated than that. Although executions were highly ritualized, there was nothing in place that we might think of as “quality control,” and bribery was a more than frequent occurrence–it was the norm. Apart from his wages and the money he made from selling off pieces of the deceased, Ketch would have received a great deal of money in bribes. If the condemned had the coin, they would attempt to bribe the executioner for a swift and merciful death. There was no mechanism in place to break the neck upon hanging at this point, so many died at Tyburn of slow strangulation, a process that could take an agonizing forty-five minutes. It would have been up Ketch to set the pace of their death and to limit–or draw out–their suffering.

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The execution of the Duke of Monmouth

The condemned were not the only people bribing executioners. Following the horribly botched executions of Lord William Russell in 1683 and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685, rumors ran rampant that although both men paid Ketch to be merciful, their enemies paid him more to make them suffer. He denied the rumors, as anyone surely would, but one has to wonder how a man who made his living executing people for twenty-three years could fail at his task so spectacularly. He was no amateur, yet during the execution of poor Monmouth, Ketch struck him five times with an axe Monmouth himself is said to have proclaimed “too dull,” and in the end had to take the Duke’s head with a knife. The spectacle had been so horrific that Ketch had to make his escape under the protection of a military guard to avoid being lynched by the crowd.

For every botched execution Ketch presided over, there were several that went off without a hitch. He was said to have known ways to tie the rope that would alternately cause the victim’s neck to break quickly or to merely render them unconscious. Indeed, if the body was moved swiftly to a coffin or intercepted by friends or relatives before it was snatched by surgeons or torn apart by the blood-thirsty crowd, there was a change they might later be revived with peppermint oil. If a person was lucky enough to survive their execution, they were typically allowed to carry on living, as this was very rare. In 1709, years after Ketch’s death, John Smith was hanged at Tyburn and left there for some time before he was cut down and revived. He made a full recovery. He was allowed to live out his life and from that day was known as “Half-Hanged Smith.”

Ketch died in November of 1686. For at least the next two hundred years, his name was applied to a whole host of things related to execution. Apart from his name becoming slang for any executioner, “Jack Ketch’s Kitchen” was a name given to a room in Newgate prison where they boiled the severed limbs of those quartered for high treason. A “Jack Ketch’s Pippin” was a candidate for the gallows. A noose became, rather uncreatively, “Jack Ketch’s Necklace”, while the slum around Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell became “Jack Ketch’s Warren”.

Jack Ketch makes an appearance in my book, Tyburn, as an acquaintance of highwayman Mark Virtue. For more on Jack Ketch and the history of Tyburn as a place of execution, check out our post here.

Jessica Cale

Sources:

Ackroyd, Peter. London, The Biography.
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, Peter. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
The Old Bailey Online
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Private Domestic Tutors: Sitting Below the Salt in Early Modern England

 

I am delighted to welcome back historian John Polsom-Jenkins with a post about private domestic tutors in the seventeenth century. Tyburn‘s hero, Nick, works as a tutor in the Earl of Hereford’s household, and this part of Nick’s story was based on his research into the lives of tutors during this period, so we owe him a great deal! Here to tell you more about the subject in his own words, Dr. John Polsom-Jenkins:

Private Domestic Tutors in Seventeenth Century England

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John Locke

Tyburn’s hero, Nick Virtue, earns his “dashing” credentials as a highwayman, but his day job, as tutor to the frightful sons of a tight-fisted nobleman, is rather more mundane. The sexy subject of highwaymen is explored in greater depth in the works of historians such as the excellent James Sharpe. Nick’s more boring-sounding occupation is loosely based on my own research in the field of educational history. However, tutors like Nick, living and working in the households of great persons, were privy to some adventures of their own and, in some cases, could give highwaymen a run for their money in the sexiness stakes. Some famous figures, such as Thomas Hobbes, Andrew Marvell and John Locke, served as tutors in seventeenth century England.

From classical times, the sons (and less frequently, the daughters) of noble and wealthy persons, were educated at their homes by tutors who were kept within the household for that purpose. By medieval times, these household tutors might have a role in martial or religious, as well as academic, instruction and often doubled in a related role such as chaplain. It was also in the medieval period that universities developed the tutor system, where a scholar would be given particular charge over the studies and the conduct of students living at the university outside their parent’s home.

By the Tudor and Stuart periods of English history, domestic tutors were more widely utilized than ever before. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the lesser gentry (smaller landowners who were able to live off their lands rather than work for a living) and even successful merchants with aspirations for their children to move up in the world began to employ tutors in their houses. The profound religious differences which divided Europe during the Reformation also brought private tutors into demand amongst those who wanted their children educated in an unorthodox faith.

Domestic tutors were employed to teach an increasingly broad (or ‘liberal’) curriculum in everything from the basics of Latin grammar to the latest trends in natural philosophy (something akin to what we would term ‘science’) as well as to ensure their charges were well versed in the manners and behaviors that would be expected of them from a very young age. Day tutors were also brought in to provide instruction in specific gentle ‘accomplishments’ such as dancing, or speaking French.

During this period, it also became increasingly common for children destined for diplomatic office or for those from the highest echelons of society to be sent on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, to see the sights, learn the languages and customs, to take lectures at foreign universities, and simply for the prestige this final gloss could give their education. These privileged children (usually males who had completed a year or so at one of the universities) were typically accompanied by a slightly older and more scholarly tutor or ‘bear ward’ on these lengthy educational voyages.

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Ben Johnson

Although this could be a highly supervised and intensely educational experience, several tutors were ill-equipped to maintain control over high-born and high-spirited adolescents and some were not themselves the best examples of behavior. In 1612, the tough bricklayer-come-playwrite, Ben Johnson, was chosen to keep the young Walter Raleigh (son of the famous potato-wielding, puddle-cloaking adventurer) in check on his Tour of France and the Netherlands, but apparently it was the ‘knavishly inclined’ Raleigh who got Johnson “dead drunk, so that he knew not where he was” and then had his tutor drawn through the streets “stretched out” on a cart, telling people at every corner that Johnson “was a more lively image of the crucifix then any they had.”

The élite world of expenses-paid sightseeing tours of Italy was not the lot of most tutors, however. Only the trusted servants of the greatest lords or wealthiest merchants could hope to enjoy such perks of the job and these men were usually formidable scholars who had a strong case for being considered gentlemen in their own right. Most tutors, if the testimony of contemporary scholars is to be believed were underpaid, poorly treated clerics, waiting for a church or university job to open up for them, or for their service to lead to some greater demonstration of favor from their lord. Joseph Hall, although later to rise to become Bishop of Norwich, wrote these biting verses on the lot of such men:

A gentle squire[1] would gladly entertain
Into his house some trencher-chaplain[2]:
Some willing man that might instruct his sons,
and that would stand to good conditions.
First that he lie upon the truckle-bed[3],
While his young master lieth over his head.
Secondly, that he do, on no default,
Ever presume to sit above the salt[4].
Third, that he never change his trencher twice.
Fourth, that he use all comely courtesies:
Sit bare[5] at meals, and one half rise and wait[6].
Last, that he never his young master beat,
But he must ask his mother to define
How many jerks she would his breech should line[7].
All those observ’d, he could contented be
To give five marks, and winter livery[8].

-Joseph Hall, Virgidemiarum (London, 1598).

[1] a squire – a gentleman, a landowner.
[2] a trencher was a bowl made out of bread, usually filled with stew – poor man’s fare at a lord’s table.
[3] a camp bed.
[4] salt was expensive and access to it controlled. Sitting above it became a sign of status.
[5] bare-headed, again indicative of low status.
[6] wait on the other diners.
[7] corporal punishment was generally considered essential to effective teaching and mothers were often accused of undermining teachers in this.
[8] Five Marks =3£ 6s 8d, a paltry sum of money. A livery was a coat with a badge or other design signifying the wearer’s service to a particular Lord or Lady. Attitudes to livery were complex amongst those who wore them, ranging from those who took pride in the finery and sign of favor to those who were ashamed to be seen in clothing which was selected for them and marked them out as a servant rather than as their own person.

This is not to say that there were not opportunities for ambitious tutors in more humble situations. Where some, rather like Nick, were underfed and paid only sporadically, others considered the food, drink, security, books, and opportunities to rub shoulders with the great on offer in wealthy households to be great perks of a tutoring job as well as being more than the average cleric could aspire to enjoy privately. Although meeting an influential patron offered a respectable way to move up in the World, many chaplains and tutors embarked upon the less popular route (with parents, at any rate) of marrying the daughters of their employers.

Some, like the Tudor-era music tutor, Thomas Whythorne, were rebuffed by young ladies who had been threatened with being cut off if they pursued such a relationship. Others, like the famous physician, John Harvey (he wrote a pioneering work on the circulation of blood in the human body), simply eloped with their intended (he and his Martha were able to reconcile with her father – well, he was a doctor, as was her father!). Not all were so fortunate, one Henry Hickman’s in-laws believed him to be a fortune-hunter when he married his Joanna, whereas a certain William Willmott was dismissed from Horseheath Hall for “endeavouring to pay his addresses to one of the ladies of the family”. Faint heart never won fair maiden, but the risks were high!

John Polsom-Jenkins

Spelling has been modernized. Quotations are from the Dictionary of National Biography

The Great Fire of London: Casualties and Aftermath

This week marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Although my series, The Southwark Saga, begins five years after the fire, the characters are still feeling its effects. It would take years for the city to rebuild and in 1671, when Tyburn begins, parts of London are still covered in ash. In the next book of the series, we’ll meet a Dutchman who was very nearly killed in the aftermath of the fire. Let’s take a closer look in this post from the archives.

The Great Fire of London began in a bakery on Pudding Lane after midnight on Sunday, September 2nd and incinerated the medieval City of London until it died down the following Wednesday. Reaching an incredible 1700 degrees Celsius, it destroyed at least 13,200 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most City authority buildings.

Although there were only six confirmed deaths, historian Neil Hanson believes that the true number of casualties of the fire and its aftermath numbered in the thousands. (1) The deaths of the poor and middle-class were not recorded, and their remains would have been burned beyond recognition. Some French and Dutch people were actually beaten and even lynched amid fears that the fire had been intentionally set by immigrants, and they had been England’s enemies in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

The houses had been mostly wooden with thatched roofs, and almost met across the streets with their projecting upper floors (jetties). Though these would have provided a shelter from the rain, the congested streets allowed the fire to spread faster with no more help than a good eastern wind.

Quite apart from the houses themselves, London was extremely flammable. The riverside alone was full of pitch, oil, tar, coal, tallow, alcohol, and turpentine. There were wooden tenements along the wharves and tar paper shacks for the poor. Homes were filled with black powder left over from the war, there were barrels of it beside the wharves, and an extra six hundred tons stored in the Tower of London.

Diarist Samuel Pepys saw the City burn, and recorded in his diary entry for September 2nd, 1666:

“Having stayed, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, I [went next] to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King’s closet in the Chapel, where people came about me, and I did give them an account [that]dismayed them all, and the word was carried into the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses. . . .

[I hurried] to [St.] Paul’s; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’ . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.” (2)

The King and the Duke of York went so far as to fight the fire themselves, pulling down burning buildings alongside their people. In spite of their best efforts, the fire raged on until Wednesday, when the winds died down and the firebreaks made by the Tower of London garrison finally proved effective.

More than 13,200 houses were destroyed

The Dutch saw it as divine retribution. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the English had burned a Dutch town in Holmes’s Bonfire. A French watchmaker names Robert Hubert confessed to setting the fire in Westminster on orders from the Pope. After he was tragically hanged at Tyburn, it was discovered that he could not have possible set the fire as he was as sea at the time.

The Aftermath

Fires were common. Fire was actually the second most common cause of death among women in this period due to the open hearths, ovens, and candles that filled their homes, just waiting to catch on the hem of a skirt. In the rebuilding of the City, cheap wooden and thatch houses were outlawed, and carpenters found themselves out of work by the hundreds, many of them forced to move out of London along with the homeless to seek shelter and work elsewhere.

Thousands of London’s inhabitants were left without homes and many died of exposure during the following winter. The only immediate positive to come of it is that the fire is generally believed to have eradicated the Plague that had devastated London the year before as it never returned.

It is this sad turn of events that inspires out-of-work carpenter Mark Virtue to turn to highway robbery in The Southwark Saga, preying on the wealthy who were living far enough west that the fire did not reach them. You can see the effects of the fire on the people even five years on in Virtue’s Lady, when the rebuild is beginning in earnest.

The Great Fire of London is very well-documented, thanks in no small part to diarist Samuel Pepys. You can read more about it here.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Hanson, Neil (2002). The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

Pepys, Samuel (1995). Robert Latham and William Matthews (eds.), ed. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. 7. London: Harper Collins.

Walk the Streets of Eighteenth Century London and See the Setting of the Southwark Saga!

Ever wish you could wander around 18th century London? Now you can, just about, thanks to this incredible interactive map at Locating London’s Past. You can even use the map to search the real locations that appear in the Southwark Saga! Yes, this map is from almost 100 years later, but most of it’s still there. Bookmark it and get ready to use this a lot, because this will be an invaluable resource to historians, authors, and readers of historical fiction alike. Ever wonder about The Strand or Half Moon Street? Now you can find them! 

In case you’re curious about some of the places names in the Southwark Saga, here’s a little list to get you started (note: I’ve highlighted the place names to make searching easier):

Love Lane: There are several Love Lanes in London and Southwark at this time, but Jane lives in a little flat on the one south of the river at the west end of Maid Lane (not to be confused with Maiden Lane, below). Maggie’s shop would have been there, too, and I imagined The Rose & Crown being across the street, perhaps where the Peacock Brewhouse was. (Heh heh)

On the other side of Maid Lane is Bear Gardenwhere the prize fights are held in Virtue’s Lady, and one of Meg Henshawe’s very favorite places. 

Fleet Street: Now, The Cheshire Cheese was (and is!) a real pub, but it is not on this map. You can search Fleet Street, however, and follow it all the way east to Newgate, and beyond that is Friday Street in Cheapside. This is where Harry’s girlfriend, Mary, lives, and the lads even pay her a visit there in Virtue’s Lady. Incidentally, this is also where the Cheapside Hoard was found. (Click here for a peek at what was in it!)

Charing Cross is where Claude Duval left Sally to fend for herself in 1668, and Bedford Street in Covent Garden is where Tyburn begins (adjacent to the infamous Maiden Lane). 

Mark and Nick grew up in a house on St James Square between Pall Mall and Piccadilly. Tyburn itself is on the map, just about, on the far left hand side at the end of Tiburn Road (follow Oxford Street west). If you zoom in, you can see the creepy little illustration of the gallows. 

How cool is that? 

PS – Don’t miss amazing street names such as Dead Man’s Place, Clink Street, and Vinegar Yard. This is way too much fun. Enjoy! 

PPS – If you fancy a paperback copy of either (or both!), I’m giving away one of each via Goodreads this month. You can even enter through the widgets in the sidebars! 😉 

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