Friday, 26 October 2012

Sleep tight! Going to bed in Medieval and Tudor England.

Pillows were for girls, lying down was dangerous and invalids should nap standing up!

                                   MS images of the Birth of Louis VIII of France in the 1180s

According to medieval and Tudor beliefs about beds and sleeping, modern practices are opening us up to all sorts of spiritual and physical dangers. Between seven and nine hours of sleep were recommended but this depended upon individual body types; with all people categorised according to the Galenic four humours, too much or too little sleep could cause dangerous imbalances and lead to illness. Nor did children require more sleep: one late fifteenth century manual suggested seven hours was sufficient. This would roughly equate to summer time daylight hours, with an extra hour in the winter. In the mid Sixteenth century, physician Andrew Boorde was recommending two periods of sleep at night, with people rising briefly between them. This was also supposedly the best time to conceive children. Sleepers should lie first on one side then the other, in dry rooms to which snails, spiders, rats and mice had no access. All windows should be closed and a fire should be kept burning to drive away the pestilence and foul sleeper’s breath. Those who were ill or unable to sleep well at night should try to nap during the day, according to Boorde but this was best done standing up, leaning against a wall or cupboard.
                                          MS image of Philip IV of France in bed c1314

Medieval beds were comparatively simple. Peasants would literally “hit the hay” wrapped only in a cloak or single blanket; nor did most people have separate rooms for sleeping in. Actual bedframes were cause for much pride and passed down in wills to family or friends. In 1540, Margery Wren left her son Geoffrey a red and green bed canopy; apparently he already had the bed.  But this in itself was a sign of wealth, when the bed would have been the largest and most expensive possession in the house. Rich and poor alike took pride in this expression of their status and might save up for a bedstead for years. The Elizabethan traveller William Harrison reflected on past practices:
"... straw pallets, covered onelie with a sheet, under coverlets … and a good round log under their heads in steed of a bolster, or pillow. If it were so that our fathers or the good man of the house, had within seven years after his mariage purchased a mattress or flockebed, and thereto a sacke of chaffe to resh his head upon, he though himself to be as well lodged as the lord of the town, that peradventure laye seldome in a bed of downe or whole feathers; so well were they contended, and with such base kind of furniture..."

             Reconstruction of beds c1465 at the Walraversijde medieval village in Belgium

Four poster beds developed during the Tudor period. Before then, canopied and half testers were known in upper class circles, with their richly embroidered hangings made out of warm velvets and taffetas. Curtains were hung from the ceiling and beds were raised up on platforms or legs. The medieval merchant’s house in Southampton contains an impressive example of such a bed with hangings attached to the ceiling. All sorts of colours and combinations were used in the outer bedding and drapery; rich reds, greens, yellows and blacks being popular, along with cloth of silver and gold and many coloured tassels and fringes. Joanna of Castile’s book of hours of around 1500 includes a picture of a large bed draped and covered in emerald green. Edgings of fur were common to keep in warmth; ermine for the King and squirrel for the middle classes. Quilts were made from linen and padded with wool like the white and brown Tristan Quilt in the Victoria and Albert Museum, dating from 1360-1400.  Full scale tales and legends as well as Biblical and heraldic images were often depicted in embroidery as on this work. Wooden headpieces were elaborately carved, often with the owner’s coat of arms and personal motifs: the finest examples, made for royalty took months to make, such as the one Henry VIII commissioned for his bedroom at Whitehall in the 1530s. An inventory of wealthy gentleman Thomas Offley’s bedroom, made in 1582, listed a plain bedstead dressed with wool mattress, feather bed and bolster, white and red blankets, a green coverlet embroidered with letters and flowers, canopy and curtains of yellow and blue dyed canvas as well as a trundle or truckle bed for his servant. 
                                                The late Elizabethan Great bed of Ware

Mattresses were stuffed with whatever material was available, from feathers or wool, down to moss and rags; these were laid across a framework of tightly knotted ropes, which needed to be retied regularly as they were prone to sagging in the middle. Hence the expression “sleep tight.” The poorest slept on mattresses of straw on the floor; servants had simple wooden beds on wheels which were stored away out of sight during the day, often under the beds of their masters. Beds were warmed by placing a hot brick or stone from the fire among the sheets or copper saucepans full of coal, which evolved into the more familiar bedpan. Pillows or beres were considered unmanly, reserved for the old, young girls and pregnant women, yet there was also a belief that it was necessary to sleep propped up to prevent devils entering the open mouth and stealing away your soul. Real men rested their heads on logs!
 Green canopied bed from the Book of Hours owned by Joanna of Castile c1500, British Library

Clean white linen from Rennes was the most desirable material for sheets but this would need a lot of care. The usual method was “bucking”- soaking it in lye, made from ashes and urine to cleanse and whiten it. It was a lengthy and physically hard process, to scrub and wring out all the sheets several times over. For the richest, laundry women were employed but levels of hygiene would decrease significantly the further down the social scale. Washing was spread out flat to dry rather than hung, pictured lain out on Goodman’s field and Tower Hill on old maps of London. Lice were a common problem and only removable by regular washing and combing. Many people from all ranks of society were used to sharing their beds with lice but fleas were unthinkable and carried the stigma of uncleanliness and immorality.
                               The public occasion of Henry VII's death at Richmond, 1509
                                           Henry VIII on his impressive death bed, 1547

Beds were social places. The richest met guests and conducted meetings from them. Key events of birth and death had far greater public significance for royalty and the wealthy, often being witnessed by friends, family and interested parties, with privacy being far less common. Co-sleeping was very common, especially in inns where travellers were expected to share beds with strangers, each lying on their own half, with rules existing for being a considerate bedfellow. In the poorer establishments, sleeping arrangements consisted of a simple wooden bench with a rope hung horizontally about chest height. Travellers would cram along the bench and hang their arms over the rope for support; in the morning they would be cleared out and the area washed down. Other inns and monasteries offered simple straw mattresses with sheets, raised off the floor on boards or woven rushes. The most famous example of a large bed is that of the late Elizabethan great bed of Ware, designed to attract customers to the inn where it stood, referred to by Shakespeare and Jonson. Sleeping fifteen people at once, it is typical of four poster beds of its time in everything but its size. The most lowly servants slept communally in the Great Hall or in large servants dormitories, with men and women usually separated, although this did not stop determined wooers, such as Catherine Howard’s history proved. Beds were also places of courtship, with some communities allowing unmarried couples to practise “bundling”- spending time together in bed whilst separated by a bolster placed down the middle! Beds were often portable too, with those of royalty being dismantled and transported between palaces as they travelled, ensuring a good night’s sleep when they arrived. Who they might be sharing it with though, was quite another matter…

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The King on Display ? It Remains to be Seen.

                  The Chiddingly Boar- Richard III's personal device, which helped archaeologists
                                                      locate Bosworth Field in 1999

  Leicester University archaeologists who recently uncovered what may prove to be the bones of Richard III, have taken the decision not to put them on display. For some, this will come as a relief, whilst others will be pushing for the remains to be photographed, filmed and ultimately put on display. In a press release of September 12, leaders of the dig confirmed the discovery of a well preserved male skeleton, displaying trauma consistent with a violent death on the battlefield.  The last Yorkist King’s valiant stand at Bosworth has become the stuff of literature and legend: more than five centuries later, the unearthing of his skeleton promises to prove deeply controversial.

Unfolding coverage of the site has generated huge excitement since the choir of the Grey Friars church was first located in August, consistent with the site of chronicler John Rous’ description of the King’s burial. All the signs look good. The bones have now been removed from their resting place and transported to the laboratories of Leicester University. While their delicate work continues, DNA evidence will not be available until at least December, some time after which, their identity will finally be confirmed. Predictably, there is huge interest in the findings. Various images of the dig have been published, including those of the press crowding around men dressed in late medieval armour. It is also possible to view online galleries containing other finds, such as tiles and pieces of masonry and to visit the site on heritage open days. The closest the public can get to the bones though, is to view the scraped-out hole where they were found, which now lies empty. Richard III is still missing in action.
                                           Site of the Grey Friars excavations in Leicester

 It's not as if the public have not seen human remains before. Regular viewers of popular archaeological and historical television programmes like Channel Four’s “Time Team” are used to seeing various skeletal remains being unearthed, removed and examined in situ. We see fragments of skulls, finger bones and pelvises gently lifted out and shown the consideration and respect by those involved. After all, as these popular archaeologists are quick to establish, these were real people, whose burials were carried out according to the religious sensibilities of the day. Their wishes must be respected. Such programmes also make clear that if there is any doubt regarding the dating of human remains, the local constabulary need to be informed.

This media exposure may be partly responsible for the frustration arising from Leicester University's decision. Their explanation, of the department’s policy of respect due to any burial regardless of identity, is unambiguous and understandable. It is in line with the best archaeological practise as outlined in a 2005 English heritage report. However, the issue does raise further questions regarding the morality and ethics of the handling of human remains and the question of public interest. For some, it seems to be a thorny issue as to whether bones which have been exposed, dismantled and physically removed from their grave, could be violated further by the taking of photographs. Does it make any difference to a dead man's bones, or his soul (consistent with his religious beliefs) if his image is captured in this way?
                    Late medieval reliquary made to hold a reputed tooth of St John the Baptist 

 One of the ironies is that in Richard III’s day, the skeletal remains and other artefacts of saints, such as hair, toe nail clippings and clothing, were widely displayed in churches and shrines. The authenticity of these highly prized items was called into question during the Reformation but for a late medieval Catholic, like Richard, they were invaluable for their devotional and healing properties. Richard would have seen and possibly handled such relics with great reverence. Of course, no one is suggesting that his body be made available for the masses to touch but its display would be well within a tradition he would understand. There is also the question of audience. In medieval times, a pilgrim may make a special journey, often hundreds of miles, specifically to see such an item. These days, pictures can be splashed all over the internet, world wide, in seconds. People are free to respond to them as they chose, in the safety of their own homes, rather than showing the proper respect that a tomb or shrine could command. So where should the line be drawn for the modern media?

Museum displays of locks of the hair of historical figures regularly attract interest but sometimes invoke a shudder of repulsion. Some people find it ghoulish to have these preserved. The hair of Mary Tudor and Katherine Parr, which has been kept inside lockets, may be of legitimate interest to students of the Tudor period, interested to verify written sources of those women’s appearances. However, given the Victorian passion for using hair in mourning jewellery, would those students be as comfortable with bracelets or even whole pictures made from woven human hair? How about hair pieces and wigs that use the locks of impoverished or dead girls? There does seem to be a subtle distinction in the use of the hair, depending upon whether it is displayed simply as a memorial piece, or if its purpose has been adapted to create a piece of art. Perhaps this is the line of sensibility where some people may find its use unacceptable. But then hair is dead. It can be cut from the body during life without causing harm.
                                     The hair of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's younger sister.
                                The hair of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife.

The ethics of displaying human remains have been pushed to the limit in the twenty first century. The Florida based “Bodies…the Exhibition,” which opened in 2005, caused much controversy by displaying real cadavers preserved by a rubberisation process discovered in the 1970s. Gunter von Hagens, the German anatomist behind the discovery, has been openly criticised for performing autopsies in public, such as the one in a London theatre in 2002. His “Body Worlds” exhibition, using rubberised corpses, met with significant legal challenges before and after it was shown in Manchester. Some people found it fascinating, considering it educative, while others were repelled and insulted. It is futile to reopen the old question of whether or not this is art. Art is whatever the artist or viewer perceives it to be and can be debated ad infinitum. What is important to remember, is that these people had given their consent. That may also be a defining factor: Richard has not consented to the exhumation and analysis of his bones. Yet there is no way he could possibly have anticipated these events, let alone the nature of the world, five centuries after his death.

                                              Victorian designs for mourning jewellery

                                              Modern hair jewellery- beautiful or odd?

 One example may highlight that the time scale is also a factor here. Think of the cases of Egyptian mummies in the British museum , which many consider to be acceptable family viewing, fascinating to see in all their glory. This may be because the robbery and destruction of their graves happened in the past and the damage has already been done. They are less connected with us, distanced by time and culture, whereas Richard is still a vivid part of English culture and subject to impassioned debate. Inevitably, his remains are rendered more controversial due to their royal status; after all, the Queen has refused permission for the reopening of the Westminster Abbey urn reported to contain the remains of the Princes in the Tower, discovered in the late seventeenth century.

Also, there is the question of whether we need to see these bones ? Or is it just that we want to ? After all, bones are just bones, aren’t they ? Actually, no. Not in this case, when they may provide critical visual evidence regarding the possible curvature of the King’s spine and manner of his death. Of course, we trust the archaeologists to make a full and truthful report of their findings but if books on the Princes in the Tower can include photographs of the skull of the nine-year-old Anne de Mowbray, wife of Prince Richard of York, can we not also expect these bones to be photographed for future publications ? There is nothing so inspiring for the student of history to get up close and personal with the past: such connections bring home the humanity of distant figures and rightly or wrongly, give the observer a thrill of association. Some may call this ghoulish, others may see it as legitimate interest.  Whilst it will be impossible to exclude those whose interest is purely voyeuristic, this must be balanced against genuine scientific education and archaeological ethics. If the bones are ever photographed or put on display, it must be done so with the respect and consideration that Richard's beliefs and rank deserve.
                         The skull of Anne de Mowbray, often featured in C15th history books

 While the decision taken by Leicester University not to make images of their discoveries public may disappoint, it is overshadowed by the larger question of the bones’ identity. The countdown to the DNA results and the passionate debates surrounding their reinterment has somewhat distracted focus from this issue. There is without doubt a valid educational reason for the remains to be seen but the employment of a children’s illustrator-style artist to recreate the scenes seems a little patronising. The Richard III society has, in the past few days, rightly given the Grey Friars excavation its Robert Hamblin Award for work of outstanding service. Open days, free to the public, have allowed those interested to view the proceedings and regular press updates have kept this story in the public eye. It only remains to be seen now what the outcome of the DNA test will be and how the bones, whoever they may be, are finally laid to rest.



Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Rebuilding the King's body: Richard III's skeleton may speak for itself.



Hunchback ? Usurper ? Murderer ? Says who ? In the five centuries since his violent death on Bosworth Field, Richard III’s reputation has been hotly debated among academics and enthusiasts alike. Perhaps no other English King has caused so much controversy and elicited such a devoted following. Vastly polarised images of the last Yorkist monarch have emerged, from the caricature promoted by More, Vergil, Holinshed and Shakespeare, to the responsible King who took on the mantle of England’s rule amid tragic circumstance that left a permanent stain on historical record. One of the key areas of contention has been Richard’s appearance but eagerly anticipated new evidence may have light to shed in this area.
                                    Richard III played by David Garrick in the Eighteenth Century
The late medieval correlation between physical appearance and moral character has played a key role in shaping later interpretations of Richard. As the brother to the tall, blonde Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, Richard appears to have taken more after his father, being dark-haired and wiry. It may be significant that he had three older brothers yet was the first to bear his father’s name. Evidence for his supposed deformation has come from a variety of sources: the 1456 Clare Roll, written as a record of the Clare family’s ancestry, commented that the four-year-old “Richard liveth yet,” giving rise to assumptions that he was a weak child. However, in the context of an age when infant mortality was high, and demographers have estimated that approximately only half of babies born in the fifteenth century reached their fifth birthday, such a comment seems entirely appropriate, if not expected. He was then the youngest child in the family, whilst his siblings were considerably older. It was also meant to distinguish him his younger sister Ursula who had already predeceased him and the long dead ancestors of whose stories he was the culmination.

                                                 Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955

Rumours of his “monstrous” birth appear to have originated with John Rous, the chronicler of the Neville family into which Richard married. Critically, two versions of Rous’ Roll survive, giving a powerful indication of the way that historiography has shaped the individual to purpose and not always upheld the impartiality so desirable in modern scholarship. The first Roll, written before 1485, presents the King as a “good” ruler who champions the cause of the common man; however, after the arrival of Henry Tudor, Rous rewrites the past, introducing the first description of Richard’s “monstrous” birth. Now, the “good” King appears to have required a two year gestation period before being born with long teeth and hair. No suggestions of such a horrific arrival survive from the 1450s. It is likely that Rous was rewriting events to suit the new dynasty’s sensibilities, however it cannot be ruled out that earlier sources may have been destroyed or presented in a more flattering light to an influential family of the day. We do know that such “monstrous” births were considered to be reflective of the moral practices of the parents and omens of ill-fate. The Yorkists were famously superstitious, with Edward IV’s vision of the parhelion or three suns in the sky taken to be a prediction of the outcome of the Battle of Towton and subsequent direction of the Cousins’ Wars. Rous’ rewriting may have been an act of self-preservation. Polydore Vergil, Thomas More and Shakespeare exploited it for their own purposes and may or may not have believed it. The image of the hunchbacked King is hardly compatible with the reputation Richard established early on, as an impressive military commander. Equally, in his youth, one duchess described him as the handsomest man in the room. Modern technology has also enabled the x-raying of portraits that have clearly been doctored to show a raised shoulder and withered arm.
                                                        Kevin Spacey in the title role

 The recent excavations in a Leicester car park have reignited a debate which has never really died. Although the world will have to wait between eight and six weeks to discover whether these remains are in fact those of the lost King, the possible presence of scoliosis could be very controversial. After the extensive debunking of these supposed historical myths, it might turn out that Richard did actually have some form of curved spine after all. If this is the case, the implications for historiography- the attribution of meaning to written and pictorial forms of evidence – will be significant. Many current theories about Richard may need to be reconsidered. While all historians are aware that they are, by definition, dealing with imperfect surviving material, this case may really expose the difficulties of drawing conclusions from a few biased fragments. What picture of King Richard III will emerge from these excavations ? Whatever the DNA tests prove, it is to be hoped that the dig will encourage all those involved to reflect upon the nature of history and the importance of objectivity in attempting to uncover the “truths” of the past, if such a simple concept exists. Then, a new Civil War may well be fought over the burial of his remains.

My biography of Anne Neville, Richard's wife, will be published by Amberley in 2013.