As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Renaissance magazine. I devour every issue as soon as it arrives. It’s largely intended for devotees of living history, specifically those who participate in Renaissance fairs. That aspect of the publication doesn’t appeal to me, but their historical background and news items are fantastic. I end up tucking at least one article per issue into a research database (by photographing and emailing it to Evernote).
I dog-eared two articles in the April/May 2013 issue: one on the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in England (drool, some day I hope to go), and the other on that most secretive of topics—the privy.
I was taken aback by this remark by a travelling Italian priest in 1518:
“Whereas in Germany there are one or two tin chamber pots to every bed (in Flanders they are made of brass and very clean), in France for want of any alternative, one has to urinate on the fire. They do this everywhere, by night and day, and indeed, the greater the nobleman or lord, the more readily or openly he will do it.”
I’d read of this practice — I have such a scene in my last novel, Mistress of the Sun, when a child is overtaken with the need to relieve herself — but frankly, I didn’t think it so commonplace.
The French, in turn, are reported to have been horrified by the British habit of men relieving themselves at the dining table:
English gentlemen, known for their prodigious drinking habits, were wont to relieve themselves where they were – in the dining room, for instance, or in a common room of a public inn – where they did not always aim straight and true (as the young man at left), much to the chagrin and disbelief of French travelers, some of whom wrote about this unsanitary habit. (As reported in a review of the book Privies and Water Closets by David J. Eveleigh on the excellent blog, Jane Austen’s World.)
Some details from the Renaissance magazine article that may show up in one of my novels:
“Night men”—who cleaned out the cesspits—were well paid, as much as skilled tradesmen.
Refreshing a privy with juniper.
One sometimes sees images of several privy holes all in a row. I have a friend who restored a house in Mexico, formerly a monastery. What’s now their breakfast nook was once a three-hole privy. I suspect this was a social time. (Let’s see this in fiction!)
Of course people would build their privy over a river or stream, but what to do in town? Some built a privy on a sort of bridge connecting two houses, emptying into an alley. (Gross.)
The wealthy, of course, often had more elegant solutions …
… when they weren’t using the fireplace, that is. ;-(
Coincidently, just this week there is a post on this subject — “Secrets of a Roman Sewer” — on the wonderful historical blog Wonders & Marvels. There is a great deal to be learned from “poo,” but I’ll leave it at that.
I know this subject seems like an unpleasant diversion from writing about a glamorous Hoyden or Firebrand, but when writing about such a person in fiction, one rather needs to know! As well, I confess: my husband and I had an outdoor privy when we moved to our log cabin in the country, decades ago. I think of it with great affection. As a mother of toddlers, I would enjoy a quiet minute or two on what my own characters refer to as “the necessary.”
What is the history of April Fools’ Day?
A reference to April Fools’ Day pranks has been found as early as 1539, in a comical poem by Flemish writer Eduard De Dene. Over a century later, in 1686, John Aubrey of England noted “Fooles holy day” observed on April 1st. At the end of the century, a British newspaper noted a popular April Fools’ Day prank: sending people to the Tower of London to see the lions washed.
In general, it seems that April Fools’ Day originated in Northern Europe and migrated to England. There are a number of theories on how this came about, but few conclusions.
The calendar-change theory
Traditionally, the French used Easter as the start of the year. In 1563, the French King Charles IX declared January 1 to be the New Year. According to legend, those who kept to the old calendar and celebrated the New Year in the spring had jokes played on them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish, which is still the French term for an April Fool.
The French calendar-change theory is tidy, but for the fact that the switch to January 1 to mark the New Year happened very slowly over a century.
The abundance-of-fish theory
Another French theory traces the origin of April Fools’ Day to the abundance of fish to be found in during early April when fish have hatched. These young fish were easily fooled with a hook and lure. The French called them Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. Soon it became customary (according to this theory) to fool people on April 1, as a way of celebrating the abundance of foolish fish.
The Roman tradition theory
In 1766, this note was published in Gentleman’s Magazine in England:
The strange custom prevalent throughout this kingdom, of people making fools of one another upon the first of April, arose from the year formerly beginning, as to some purpose, and in some respects, on the twenty-fifth of March, which was supposed to be the incarnation of our Lord; it being customary with the Romans, as well as with us, to hold a festival, attended by an octave, at the commencement of the new year—which festival lasted for eight days, whereof the first and last were the principal; therefore the first of April is the octave of the twenty-fifth of March, and, consequently, the close or ending of the feast, which was both the festival of the Annunciation and the beginning of the new year.”
I think this is a credible explanation.
The renewal-ritual theory
Nearly every culture has a festival to celebrate the end of winter and the return of spring. Anthropologists call these “renewal festivals” and they often they involve mayhem and the wearing of disguises.
Might April Fools’ Day be the last vestiges of a pagan renewal festival?
The custom of playing practical jokes on friends was part of the celebrations in ancient Rome on March 25 (Hilaria) and in India on March 31 (Huli). The timing seems related to the vernal equinox and the coming of spring — a time when nature fools us with sudden changes between showers and sunshine.
Certainly we are often fooled by hints of spring!
For an excellent article on these puzzles, click here.
Tracking down facts can be a time-crunching task … but a very enjoyable one when the goal is in sight.
I began with a simple question: Where was Hortense’s father executed and buried? I think these were things she might have wanted to know.
Portrait of Josephine and her two children, Hortense and Eugène, visiting their father in prison.
In the process, I found many wrong answers … which reinforces the common knowledge that the Net can’t be trusted. However, I knew enough to know when the answer was wrong, and kept looking.
In the process I ended up making a correction to a Wikipedia page … which rather thrilled me. Alexandre was defined, simply, as the lover of Princess Amalie of Salm-Kyrburg, a friend of Josephine’s who secretly acquired the land after the Revolution because her brother is buried there. Not only was it curious that Josephine and their children were not mentioned, but I very much doubt that Alexandre was Amalie’s lover. Other women, certainly, but not Amalie.
Place du Trône-Renversé—now Place de la Nation—where Hortense’s father was guillotined.
Alexandre was guillotined not in the Place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde now) or Place de Grève (in front of the l’Hôtel-de-Ville), as if often claimed, but in Place du Trône-Renversé (now Place de la Nation), on the western edge of Paris. Apparently the other execution sites had become so bloody they had to find a new spot.
Mass executions at the height of the Terror
In a matter of about 6 weeks (from June 13 to July 27, 1794) 1306 men and women were guillotined, as many as 55 people a day. I imagine that it was hard work keeping the blade sufficiently sharp.
How to dispose of all the bodies?
It was also hard work disposing of the bodies. What is now the Picpus Cemetery was then land seized from a convent during the Revolution, conveniently close to Place du Trône-Renversé. A pit was dug at the end of the garden, and when that filled up, a second was dug. The bodies of all 1306 of the men and women executed in Place du Trône-Renversé were thrown into the common pits including 108 nobles, 136 monastics, and 579 commoners … .
The mass graves are simply marked.
One of two wall listing the names and ages of the dead.
Le Cimetière de Picpus today.
Of those executed, 197 were women, including 16 Carmelite nuns, who went to the scaffold singing hymns.
In all the research I’ve done in Paris over the decades, I’ve yet to go to either the Place du Trône-Renversé (Place de la Nation) or the Picpus Cemetery. I believe I’m due.
(St. Florian Library at Melk Abbey in Austria.)
I’m at sixes and sevens today (a soon to be Mother-of-the-Bride, so understandable). Even my 100-word writing minimum is a challenge. At such times, I turn to organizing research. It’s important to do, and it doesn’t require creative energy.
Organizing research: recording citation information
My system for organizing research texts is simple. I keep the list of all books or magazine articles in a Notebook application, but any outlining program would do. Each book or magazine is assigned a number (I’m up to 1148, yikes), which I write in pencil in the book or on a post-it note which I stick on the inside front cover.
The application Notebook makes it possible for me to annotate the listings and add “stickers.” The double S sign shown here means that the book is in my library in Canada. I have stickers to indicate books that are in Mexico, books that go back and forth, library books and books that are on-line. For the on-line listings I will include a link in the citation.
Organizing research: organizing the bibliography
Then I moved the citation into the list of books I’m using for the WIP — the novel about Josephine’s daughter Hortense in this instance, and Notebook automatically alphabetizes them.
Organizing research: taking notes
And then the hard part: reading the texts and taking notes. Each reference I make to the book or magazine I reference with the text’s number, and page number:
That way I can track back to the source, should I need to later.
For more on my research process and research in general, go to On Research, and specifically, My Research Method.
How do you organize your research?
Stanford University in the U.S. and the Bibliothèque national de France have collaborated in creating the French Revolution Digital Archive, an astonishing collection of documents on the French Revolution.
A search of the image database revealed this delightfully imaginative sketch of Josephine:
Here is one of Josephine’s arrogant first husband Alexandre:
There are, of course, many images of Josephine’s second husband, Napoleon.
For more images, see my Pinterest boards on Josephine and Napoleon.
It’s always a pleasure to see a historical film set in the Court of the Sun King. A Little Chaos, staring Kate Winslet, promises to be sumptuous. I always take issue with the portrayals because I have my own vision of these characters. None the less, I’m eager to watch it, especially to see how Versailles is portrayed in its early days.
The story of A Little Chaos
Madame Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is an unlikely candidate for landscape architect of the still-to-be-completed Palace of Versailles. She has little time for the classical, ordered designs of the man who hires her, the famous architect Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts). However, as she works on her creation, she finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Le Nôtre and forced to negotiate the perilous rivalries and intricate etiquette of the court of King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman). But Sabine is made of strong stuff; her honesty and compassion help her to overcome both the challenges of her newfound popularity, and an unspeakable tragedy from her past, to win the favour of the Sun King and the heart of Le Nôtre.
Oh, how this makes me long to see such a movie about Claudette or Petite!
Since I wrote this post, and since A Little Chaos has come out there have been mixed reviews. One objection is that the real story of Le Nôtre is quite interesting enough without tarting it up with a love interest. He was the most steady and loyal of men.
From the Guardian: A Little Chaos: leads historical accuracy down the garden path
Only 6.5 on IMDb: too bad!
From the BBC: Costume drama A Little Chaos fails to blossom
Nonetheless, I can’t wait to see A Little Chaos. Have you seen it? What did you think?