“Baroque Explorations” is a blog about my research into 17th century life and the era of the Court of Louis XIV, the Sun King in particular. I’m beginning to sneak back into the 18th century Napoleonic era from time to time as well.
For my blog on (surviving) the writing life, click here.
Quote of the moment: ”The future is the past, returning through another gate.” —from a poem by Victoria Chang
My father died recently, my mother many years before. I was with my mother when she died, and with my father in his last hours.
My mother had the good fortune to die at home, under Hospice care. My sister Robin and her partner Betsy came prepared with a bag of rose pedals.
In the dead of night, I was reading “Wild Swans” by Edna St. Vincent Millay to my mother when she breathed her last. It was a poem she had pointed out to me many decades before, when I was a teen. “It’s about death,” she’d told me.
I ran to tell my sister and Betsy, and then our poor grief-stricken father. Soon, Robin and Betsy set to work, cleansing my mother’s body. This was something they had done before for friends who had died. They dressed Mother in a lovely nightgown and sprinkled her all over with rose pedals. She looked beautiful, and at peace.
On news of our father’s death in the small hours of the morning, Robin and Betsy went immediately to the hospital. My sister insisted that she join the nurses in that ancient ritual: cleansing the body. “She does that,” Betsy assured the nurses, who were taken aback.
I recently read a beautifully touching article in the Huffington Post, Inside a Home Funeral, on the ritual of cleansing the body. As the writer said, he entered “a holy space.” My sister and Betsy are very special people, both strong and tender. I’m strong and tender, but not in that way—and I admire them greatly for it.
Too, their practice of helping to cleanse the body of a loved one has reminded me how it must have been in ancient times.
I was surprised not to be able to find any ancient images of a body being cleansed. It was certainly an important practice. From a website on funeral customs:
“Certain Jewish customs were adopted by the Church as “pious practices” (as distinguished from articles of faith) because of their association with the burial of their Divine Founder. An instance of this is the ceremonious cleansing of the body after death. St. Chrysostom writes of this as being “hallowed in the person of our Lord” (whose body was washed as soon as it was taken from the Cross). To the Christians this Jewish custom (the special obligation of a son to his father’s body) signified that the dead, freed from the stain of sin by the Sacraments, might be received into Heaven “where no unclean thing may enter.”
“The charitable St. Martin took particular care to search out the dead bodies of the poor and destitute, and we are told, “Never failed of washing them with fair water.”
A very good book on the history of Western death rituals is The Hour of Our Death: The Classic History of Western Attitudes Toward Death over the Last One Thousand Years, by Philippe Aries.
I’m once again back in research mode, this time preparing to write two novels about Josephine’s daughter Hortense. They are to be a YA (“Young Adult”) and will thus focus on Hortense’s teen years.
The first takes place largely in the boarding school Hortense was placed in at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, run by Madame Campan.
I’ve been to Saint-Germain-en-Laye many, many times over the years, but it has been almost two decades since I’ve been there to research the Napoleonic era. Now I have the advantage of the Net, and (with perseverance) have found a bounty of information.
This is what I’ve gleaned so far:
On July 31, 1794, Campan opened her school—”National Institution of Saint-Germain”—on rue de Poissy. In the spring of the following year, on May 25, she rented Hôtel de Rohan on 42, rue de l’Unité—now 42, rue des Ursulines—opening it there on July 1, 1795. Two months later, on September 1, Josephine enrols Hortense and possibly her niece Emily there.
What I long for, however, are images, and this was the first image of the Hôtel de Rohan I was able to find:
The French government provides all sorts of information on historical sites. This one is a treasure of information and images:
Here is a map detail from the mid-18th century:
And another one from 1820:
The inner courtyard (mid-19th century):
The basin in the entry:
You can see it filled with plants here:
And here’s a detail of the staircase:
The former Hôtel de Rohan is now, of course, an apartment block (and, I gather, a guitar school). I hope to get in to see it on my next research trip to France, but for now, these images help a great deal.
We all know the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: I thought, for this post, I would have a look into its history. As with any research, one thing leads to another …
The words to the song were first printed in a children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, in 1780.
(The title is quite delightful as is, but even more so with the addition “…or the Gaping Wide Mouthed Waddling Frog.” You can buy a reproduction copy of Mirth Without Mischief through Amazon: click here.)
In Mirth Without Mischief, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is presented as a memory game. Players gather in a circle, and each one in turn says the first line. Then, when it comes around to the first player again, he gives the second line, and so on, until someone messes up and punishment ensues.
Of course the song itself dates further back, some even claiming its origin in the 16th century. It is generally thought that the original verse was French. Others claim it was a Catholic catechism memory song, taught to the children of oppressed English Catholics during the Reformation. (This theory is considered to be an urban legend by some.)
The twelve days of Christmas is a custom that originally goes back to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia followed by twelve holidays, ending January 1. Now (usually) the twelve days of Christmas—known as Christmastide and Twelvetide—begin on December 25, Christmas day, and end on January 5. In some cultures, the twelfth day is January 6, the first day of Epiphany.
As with any historical exploration across cultures, dates will differ. For some, Saint Steven’s Day (Boxing Day) marks the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas, with welcome candles put in windows. A Yule Log (an ancient custom handed down from the Druids) was kept burning until the New Year to ensure good luck from year to year.
Twelfth Night marks the traditional end of the Christmas season: but does it fall on January 5th or 6th? That, too, depends. We live in very Catholic Mexico in the winter, and January 6th is the big event here. The night before, while children sleep, fathers swarm into the markets to buy their children a gift to discover in the morning. Even the big department stores stay open, and taxis and buses are busy taking parents from shop to shop in the dark of night.
The Twelfth Night party is celebrated with a King Cake (Rosca de Reyes here, Gateau de Rois in French-speaking countries) in honour of the three Wise Men. It’s a yeast cake filled with dried fruits and nuts. It is based on an ancient Arab recipe, and has been made in this way by Christians throughout most of Europe since the Middle Ages.
In Mexico, as in times past, the person who gets the piece with a plastic baby Jesus in it (a pea or bean in former times, of course) is crowned. Here the tradition is that that person is then obliged to give the Twelfth Night party the following year.
I love this etching of Christmas festivity gone wild:
Rest assured that however you celebrate the holidays, whatever you do has a long and very merry tradition.
Here’s wishing everyone Happy Holidays, and a wonderful New Year! Keep that Yule Log burning.
Wikipedia on the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
Lyrics for “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
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[Portrait believed to be of Josephine, painted by Appiani during her first voyage to Italy.]
I’ve had very interesting comments on this blog from a reader in Russia, concerning Josephine. “La Reine Margot” raises a number of questions, which I’m going to attempt to answer here. (Please keep in mind that it has been over a decade since I was deep into research into Josephine’s world! There might well be new findings. Consider this an evolving discussion.)
Basically, La Reine Margot would like to know about the relationship between Josephine and Hypolite Charles. ”I know that you have some doubts about a sexual relationship between Josephine and Charles.” She’d like to know why I have doubts.
First of all: lack of real evidence. There is only gossip. La Reine notes the saying, “Where there is smoke there is fire.” True, but one learns when studying history that gossip is often used as a weapon, often intentionally. (As when the English planted the rumour that Josephine’s daughter Hortense was pregnant by her step-father Napoleon.) Smoke clouds are sent up, if you will, to make people suspect a fire. One learns, too, that the partners of powerful men are often maligned—something now one sees often, as well.
“Of course the Josephine’s letters to Charles are fakes … but what is the story of this fake? … What is the reason for this hoax?”
It’s impossible to know who created this hoax, but it’s easy enough to see who financially profited from it: the biographer/historian who first printed it.
And from what sources come this affirmation? If I remember correctly there are two main sources: the dutchess d’Abrantes memoirs and those of monsieur Hamelin. Laura [d'Abrantes] and her co-author Balzac of course retold gossips. But were these gossips unfounded?
In short: I think yes.
Abrantes was mean in her memoirs with respect to Josephine, but keep in mind that they were published after Napoleon had been exiled, when she had a lot to gain by this stance. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) It’s worthwhile noting that in Abrantes’ letters to friends written while Josephine was alive, she was nothing short of worshipful in her descriptions of the Empress—a strikingly different point-of-view from that stated in her memoirs.
As for Hamelin’s memoirs… If he lied, what was the reason? Perhaps he invented some details. but what was his purpose to lie about the very nature of the relationship of Josephine and Charles?
Why would Hamelin lie? He was notorious lier, for one thing. (For another: when was his memoir published? I tried, without success, to find out—but that might provide a clue.)
All Hamelin said was that he saw Charles’s coat outside Josephine’s room—and from that all is conjectured. Even if true, I think Charles and Josephine might well have had reason to be behind closed doors: counting the profits from their illicit financial endeavours and plotting future investments most likely (IMO). Remember: this is an ill woman going through a violent and early menopause. It’s not impossible that she was having an affair with Charles; but it’s not impossible that she was not.
Are there any others sources? if I remember correctly Bourrienne described that it was Junot who finally told the truth to Napoleon. I never understand the reason for what he decided to do it but I can’t understand his reason to lie too. Louise Compoint of course had this reason. But he?
What did Junot have against Josephine? Josephine fired her femme de chambre Louise Compoint for sleeping with him, for one thing. Louise did her best to malign Josephine after, and I wouldn’t be surprised that she recruited her lover into this effort. (Ironically, Louise, later in need of money, was to come to the then Empress Josephine, who, never one to hold a grudge, gave it to her.)
Josephine had a number of male friends, but most notably Barras and Charles. She was a modern woman in this respect: comfortable in the world of men. Someone once said to me a long, long time ago: “She enjoyed the company of homosexuals.” All this is conjecture, but I sense this might have been true. Before she became Empress, Josephine was a bohemian woman with artistic tastes.
And the nature of the relationship Josephine and Barras? They certainly were friends and partners. But were they lovers? As for me, I think that they were. I suppose that this man was bisexual, but not gay. If he was gay, who was the father of one of the children of Therese Tallien?
Therese only had one child—a daughter, Thermidor—and Tallien was the father. I don’t believe I’ve ever read that she had a child by Barras. (Again, let me know if I’m mistaken.) To my knowledge, Barras did not have any children.
This child if I remember correctly was born in the chateau Grosbois and it was common knowelege that it was his child. And personally I can’t believe that this canny and licentious man could help Rose without demanding sexual toll in return.
I’d be interested to know your source!
Barras was “repaid” for his help to Josephine many times over by the powerful financial contacts Josephine was able to provide to wealthy Island bankers she’d come to know as a Freemson. Dr. Catinat told me that in the exchange of goods and favours between Josephine and Barras, Barras was very much the winner. There was no call for a “sexual toll” in return. The claim that Barras must have been enjoying Josephine’s sexual favours is based on the assumption, in part, that that is all a woman has to offer.
When did Josephine’s [menstrual cycle] stop? What was her age?
You can understand that this type of information is not revealed! We can only guess. What we do know is that Josephine said she was pregnant by Napoleon while he was in Italy. It’s later conjectured that she was lying in order not to have to join Napoleon in Italy. And then, again, it’s conjectured that she was lying when she wrote to Napoleon to say she was very sick.
But imagine that she was not lying: what if her menstrual cycle had stopped and she assumed it was because she was pregnant? If you look at the evidence—various letters, etc.—it’s clear that she really was quite sick during this period of time. Dr. Catinat, who is a medical doctor (as well as a foremost expert on her life), suspects that she’d gone into an early menopause at the age of only 32. Frankly: this fits. It would explain why she thought she was pregnant (missed period), and why she was so prone to tears at this time.
On top of that, clearly she had something amiss, for she suffered fevers. Quite possibly she had some sort of infection. All this is during that famous trip to Italy with Charles and Junot and Hamelin. I find it hard to imagine a torrid love-affair with Charles while in such a state, and in such company.
As for Charles: he married quite late and never, to my knowledge, had children. No doubt he and Josephine were close … and no doubt they were in secretly involved financially. It’s possible that there was a sexual relationship … but it’s also possible that there wasn’t.
When I was in Paris last summer for the filming of the documentary about Josephine, I chatted at length with Bernard Chevalier, former curator of Malmaison and co-author of a biography about Josephine. I asked him: “If you could ask Josephine one question, what would it be?” And he said, “I would ask her about Captain Charles.” And I said, “Me, too.”
Because, frankly, we really don’t know.
One of my favorite writers is curator, historian and author Lucy Worsley. Lately I’ve been dipping back into If Walls Could Talk; an intimate history of the home. It always leaves me with some astonishing historical tidbit.
Did you know that the 8-hours we consider “a good night’s sleep” is a modern (i.e. post-industrial) notion?
Historian Roger Ekirch suggests that in pre-industrial times, people had two sleep spells: a “first sleep” and a “second sleep” with a few hours of wakefulness in-between. In some parts of the world the nights are as long as 14 hours. Experiments show that people kept in the dark that long fall naturally into a pattern of two periods of sleep.
There are references in literature to two sleep periods. Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past mentions more than 500 references to a broken sleeping pattern in diaries, court records, medical books and literature. One mentions someone “newly come to bed” becoming cross at bed-mates
who “had already slept their first sleep.” Another mentions midnight, a time “when a man wakes from his first sleep.” A French doctor suggests that the best time to conceive children was “after the first sleep.”
People likely made up for a broken pattern of sleep by taking naps. In some realms, workmen had a legal right to sleep for a half-hour mid-day.
Everything changed, of course, with the invention of affordable artificial light. Once people were staying up late on a regular basis, they needed one long sleep: ideally, eight hours.
I read this chapter while looking after my daughter’s new-born. She and the baby are definitely on a natural schedule, with periods of wakefulness during the night.
Concludes Worsley: ”Next time you’re suffering from insomnia, just tell yourself that you’re experiencing a medieval sleep pattern … “
The myth of the eight-hour sleep (BBC News Magazine);
(… and writing The Next Novel.)
Music of the Baroque period, a web page I just put together for readers of Mistress of the Sun.
London Lives (1690 – 1800) is a wonderful research site. Put in a search term, and lots comes up, mostly quotes from Court records.
For example, because I’m fascinated with early theater right now, I searched “players” and got a vivid snapshot of daily life.
I loved this best—a definition of who would be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond (and thus taken directly to the Justice of the Peace):
THAT Persons pretending themselves to be Patent-Gatherers, or Collectors for Prisons, Goals, or Hospitals, and wandring abroad for that Purpose; all Fencers, Bear-wards, Common-Players of Interludes, Minstrels, Juglers; all Persons pretending to be Gypsies, or wandring in the Habit or Form of counter-feit Egyptians, or pretending to have Skill in Physiognomy, Palmistry, or like crafty Science, or pretending to tell Fortunes, or like phantastical Imaginations, or using any Subtle Craft, or unlawful Games or Plays; all Persons able in Body, who run away, and leave their Wives or Children to the Parish, and, not having where with otherwise to maintain themselves, use Loytering, and refuse to work for the usual and common Wages; and all other idle Persons wandring Abroad and begging (except Soldiers, Mariners or Sea-faring Men licenced under the Hand and Seal of some Justice of Peace, fetting down the Time and Place of Landing, the Place to which, and the Time within which, they are to pass, while they continue in the direct Way and during the Time so limited) Shall be deem’d Rogues and Vagabonds.
Note that licensed soldiers and mariners were allowed to beg.
Do you have a research site you can recommend?