“Baroque Explorations” is a blog about my research into 17th and 18th century life. (For my blog on (surviving) the writing life, click here.)
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Quote of the moment: “The future is the past, returning through another gate.” —from a poem by Victoria Chang
Fear of Ebola is helping me understand how people felt and responded to fear of the plague—the Black Death—in the Napoleonic era.
During Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague after the French capture of Jaffa on 7 March 1799. The news that there was plague in Egypt must have terrified the families and friends of the soldiers who were fighting there.
This from Wikipedia:
Before leaving Jaffa, Bonaparte set up a divan for the city along with a large hospital on the site of the Carmelite monastery at Mount Carmel to treat those of his soldiers who had caught the plague, whose symptoms had been seen among them since the start of the siege. A report from generals Bon and Rampon on the plague’s spread worried Bonaparte. To calm his army, it is said he went into the sufferers’ rooms, spoke with and consoled the sick and touched them, saying “See, it’s nothing,” then left the hospital and told those who thought his actions unwise “It was my duty, I’m commander-in-chief.”
However, some later historians state that Napoleon avoided touching or even meeting plague-sufferers to avoid catching it and that his visits to the sick were invented by later Napoleonic propaganda.
For example, long after the campaign, Antoine-Jean Gros produced the propaganda painting Bonaparte visiting the plague-victims of Jaffa in 1804. This showed Napoleon touching a sick man’s body, modelling him on an Ancien Régime king-healer touching sufferers from the “King’s Evil” during his coronation rites – this was no coincidence, since 1804 was the year Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor.
One way of containing the spread of a highly-contageous disease in Europe was quarantine:
The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni, which mean 40 days.
When Napoleon returned to France from Egypt, landing in Fréjus, he was criticized for not having observed the obligatory quarantine imposed on people coming from a plague-infected country. The breech of the quarantine laws was no small matter: it was punishable even with death.
According to Napoleon’s secretary Bourrienne, however, when the citizens of the village swarmed Napoleon’s boat in their enthusiasm,
In vain we endeavoured to keep the people off; we were fairly lifted up, and carried on shore. When we told the crowd of men and women the danger they ran [of contracting the Plague] they all cried out, “We’d rather have the plague than the Austrians.”
When we consider that 500 people landed and all the goods brought from Alexandria, where the plague had been raging during the summer…[it was fortunate] that France and Europe were spared.
On Ebola quarantine today and in years past: “Ebola is ‘Jerking Us Back to the 19th Century.”
I have been falling victim to research excitement. On one search, I came upon these letters, which did not answer my questions, but were too exciting to pass by.
All of the letters are part of an auction of letters and manuscripts. The first two were dictated by Napoleon to Géraud Christophe Duroc, displaying Duroc’s lovely handwriting. Since he is a significant character in the Young Adult novels I am writing, seeing his graceful, elegant handwriting speaks volumes.
This first one was written on November 13, 1796, in Verona. (See here for details.)
This second letter, also dictated by Napoleon and written by Duroc, was sent on September 30, 1797, from Passeriano, Italy, during the peace negotiations with Austria.
This next letter was written by Napoleon to his brother Joseph in October of 1792 from Ajaccio, Corsica, and it helps understand why Napoleon had need of a secretary. Napoleon’s handwriting was famously difficult to read.
This last one was written by Josephine on May 14, 1809, to her son Eugène.
It simply thrills me to see her signature.
It continues to amaze me what one can find on-line now. I was searching for pre-1805 publications that contained the name Madame Campan, the founder and director of the highly esteemed boarding school Josephine’s daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, went to.*
I was charmed to find Madame Campan’s name listed in this title:
At the beginning of the Mémoires is thank you note to the subscribers, a very long list which includes many members of the Court (including the King and Queen). I gather that all these people paid in advance in order for the Mémoires to be published. This reminded me immediately of our on-line crowdsourcing like Kickstarter.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
*I was on-line trying to find out the name of the school as it had been referred to at the time. Here are two possibilities:
L’Institut National des Jeunes Filles/National Institution for Young Women
I’ve also seen (but only in English): National Institution for the Education of Young Women.
l’Institut national de Saint-Germain/The National Institution of Saint-Germain
I have doubts about this name because during the Revolution the name of Saint-Germain-en-Laye had been changed to Montagne-Bon-Air. It was changed back 28 février 1795, but would Madame Campan have been so bold as to jump immediately on the reversal?
I began this essay on the Statue of Liberty some time ago in Beaune, France, on October 28, 2012—which, coincidentally, happened to be the statue’s 126th birthday. It was also the day the statue was scheduled to reopen after renovations. Days later, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and two images were often seen on the Net. They aren’t authentic images, in fact, but they poetically capture a greater truth—the image of endurance in the face of a tremendous challenge.
Endurance in the face of challenge was what it took to create the statue, in fact. It’s a fascinating and inspiring history, demonstrating how a few persistent individuals can effect great change.
Although the storm did damage Liberty and Ellis Islands, there was no damage to the statue. How did Lady Liberty survive? The key is in how she was designed—by Monsieur Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
My fascination with Lady Liberty began in Paris, when my husband and I went to the Musée des arts et métiers. The museum is a wonderful display of the history of innovation, mostly from the 18th century. One thing that particularly struck me were the mock-ups of the work site of the Statue of Liberty being built.
(The face of the Statue of Liberty is touchingly modelled on that of the sculptor’s mother.)
The statue began as most great projects do: as a bright light of an idea in one person’s mind. Frédéric Bartholdi, a French sculptor, thought it would be a wonderful way to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. Happy Birthday, U.S.A.*
The project proceeded in an equally typical fashion: with great frustration and wrangling. Did America even want such a gift? Where would they put it? And more to the point, who would pay for it?
It was eventually agreed that the U.S. would build the pedestal, and France the statue. A huge sum of money was required, and on both sides of the ocean fees, fund-raisers, auctions, and lotteries were used to try to raise the needed funds.
Little by little, things were set in motion. Frédéric was commissioned, and wisely chose Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower, to design the support structure. Eiffel opted not to use a rigid structure, but instead loosely connected the support structure to the skin. It’s this flexibility what allows the statue to endure high winds.
Fund-raising for the pedestal lagged in America, however, and work was suspended. Other American cities, including Boston and Philadelphia, offered to pay in return for relocating it. Joseph Pulitzer (founder of the Pulitzer Prize), publisher of a New York newspaper, announced a drive to raise $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.3 million today) by pledging to print the name of every contributor in the paper, no matter how small the amount, along with the touching notes he received:
“A young girl alone in the world” donated “60 cents, the result of self denial.”
“Five cents as a poor office boy’s mite toward the Pedestal Fund.”
A group of children sent a dollar as “the money we saved to go to the circus with.”
A dollar given by a “lonely and very aged woman.”
A kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa, mailed the World a gift of $1.35.
Donations flooded in and work on the pedestal was resumed.
Once the pedestal was completed in America, Lady Liberty’s 350 pieces were packed into 214 crates and loaded onto the frigate “Isere.” It took four months to assemble her, and on October 28, 1886, she was officially “born” in a ceremony in front of thousands.
On the morning of the dedication, a parade was held in New York City. As the parade passed the New York Stock Exchange, traders threw ticker tape from the windows—the first ticker-tape parade.
At the unveiling ceremony, creator Frédéric was called upon to speak, but refused. Was he too moved? It had taken over two decades of his persistent effort, and his dream had finally become a reality.
It’s such a wonderful story. After visiting that museum, I began to take notes for a possible children’s book on Lady Liberty’s amazing voyage.
* Lawyer and politician Édouard de Laboulaye was also an important part of the statue’s conception and creations, but for the purpose of this essay, I’ve focussed on Frédéric.
Painting above: Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World by Edward Moran.
Madame Lenormand (or Le Normand) was a famous fortune-teller of this time, a high-society favourite known as “The Sibyl of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.”
A card method of fortune-telling attributed to her is extremely popular now. Type “Lenormand” in Google and you will see what I mean. The Madame Lenormand Fortune Teller is a site where you can get a (free) reading on-line using a variety of cards: fairly awesome! This is a great way to get to know the cards and the different ways of reading them.
At the Lenormand on-line Museum you can look at all the cards, both ancient and new.
Once you start exploring this realm, it’s a bit overwhelming. I appear to have just signed up for a free telephone reading! I’m no sibyl, but I predict that they will want my credit card number first.
For more on this subject: Origins of Playing Card Divination.
Since writing this post, I’ve learned a great deal more about Madame Lenormand and her cards. For one thing, she was quite the entrepreneur, writing and publishing vast amounts. I read several books on her system, and made a practice of “throwing” my cards every day. In short, I became a bit addicted! The cards are often called “The Game of Hope”—and they’ve become central to the novel I’m writing. In fact, the working title is The Game of Hope.
Books about The Game of Hope:
The birth of Louis XIV, the Sun King, was an occasion of great celebrating in France. He was called the “God-Given,” because Queen Anne had prayed fervently for a child after suffering several miscarriages and many years of marriage.
Here are some images of mother and son, and a charming portrait of the future Sun King as a toddler:
This last one, my favorite, is only presumed to be of the king. It shows the swaddling that was done at the time.
A blog post on Medievalists.net—Medieval Mean Girls: On Sexual Rivalry and the Uses of Cosmetics—reveals a treasure trove of diaries about the jealousies and beautification efforts of women in the late Middle Ages. It is fair to assume that such rivalry continues on through time.
Is there here any lady among us who does not wear cosmetics or cream on her face, or uses depilatories, or cara de diable? How they sorrowfully take off that cream, and put on snake and lizard water. Oh, they sin greatly those who act so vainly, in order to please men.
Well, does she wear white powder on her face? Truly, up to her eyes! And, blush? In excess! Her eyebrows [are] well tweezed, high and arched, her eyes made up. Her forehead [is] scraped clean, and even her entire face –the big and tiny hairs– with pelador de pez, turpentine, and chamomile oil. Her lips [are] very red, not natural but from red dove feet mixed with brazil wood and alum. Her teeth were brushed with nutmeg or scrubbed with styrax, an herb from India. Her nails [are] stained with henna and grown long, longer than those of her pinkies, also stained white, and she even covers them with gold. Her face [is] shiny like a sword [...]. She puts ten different foundation creams on her face, one after the other, once each day, and when she doesn’t have them on she looks like an Indian heathen.
All the year long she is mewed up at home … she anoints her face with gall and honey, with parched grape and figs crushed and pressed together … … she has such breasts, being a maid, as if she had been the mother of three children; and are for all the world, like nothing more than two great pompeans, or big bottled gourds. Her belly I have not seen, but judging it by the rest, I verily believe it, to be slack and as flaggy, as a woman of fifty year old. She had a room full of distillation vessels, wide mouthed and narrow necked flasks made of clay, glass, copper, or tin, made in a thousand different ways. She made sublimate, cooked-up make up, face-paints, lipsticks, llanillas, lotions, waters to make the face glisten, to cleanse the skin, alvalines, and other tonics, made of shavings of daffodil, wood bark, cittibush, tarragon, galls, sour grapes, [and] grape must, distilled and sweetened with sugar…
Whoever wishes one’s face to be beautiful should constrain the blood from flowing towards it. With wine and food both subtle and tasty, the fig in this case is wonderfully good, as is date water and honeyed foods. And if from chicken pox one’s face is marked, use an ointment from cheese, honey, and salt. And an ointment of cetrina [cerrusite, camphor, and oil mixed with citron] is very good for this. And if one has freckles or discolorations on one’s face, a myrrh wash is beneficial.
The Bastille Archives are a treasure trove of information. This morning I discovered, for example, in a report by Reynie, the police chief, that the “love powders” being delivered by Voisin to Montespan—for use on the King (or perhaps by Montespan herself?)—contained “des cantharides,” more commonly known as “Spanish Fly.”
Ah. Love powders indeed.
Cantharidin powder was used in aphrodisiac sweets called pilles galantes, or pastilles de Richelieu, because the Duc de Richelieu offered them to his mistresses. In the 18th century, Madame du Barry, King XV’s mistress, was said to have called them pastilles de sérail (pastilles of the seraglio), taking them herself or giving them to young women to prepare them for amorous duty with the ageing King. In 19th century France, it was commonly available as philtre amoureux or love philtre. Sometimes the powder was dissolved in alcohol, producing a tincture.
“Before, she was common talk; now,
none dare say, cantharides can stir her.”
“Spanish Fly” is in fact neither Spanish nor a fly, but a “blister beetle” which has a chemical in its body that’s an irritant. When rubbed on the body it produces blisters (hence its name). When the dried, crushed body of the beetle is eaten, it causes inflammation of all the organs of the genital tract, including the genital organs. This gave rise to the believe that it was an aphrodisiac and could be used to treat impotence.
However, the swelling induced could be extremely painful, and the dose required to produce swelling was close to fatal. (A dose of only 10 milligrams can kill.) In women the powder could cause painful contractions of the uterus, and for this reason it was used to induce abortions.
It also caused a number of medical problems. It could cause permanent renal damage, for example (which casts suspicion, in my mind, on the King’s renal fistula later in his life). Over time, the kidneys would be damaged. The user (or, rather, abuser) would experience a dull, heavy pain in the loins, and have a constant desire to urinate (but passing only a small amount of blood-stained urine). After some time, convulsions occur followed by death within twenty-four hours.
The history of its use is long. The Roman empress Livia (58 B.C.-A.D. 29) slipped it into the food of members of the imperial family to cause them to commit sexual indiscretions that could later be used against them. In 1772, the Marquis de Sade gave sweet aniseed balls laced with Spanish Fly to prostitutes, who began to have uncontrollable vomiting, and died in agony a week later. In 1953, a fisherman accidently killed himself by pricking his thumb with a fish hook that had been dipped in a tincture containing the powder (which he believed would attract fish). The following year a man was convicted of killing two women by giving them coconut candies with cantharidin in them.
“You whoreson cantharides!” —1601, Ben Johnson
It had medical uses, as well. Cantharidin powder was believed to cure gout, carbuncles, rheumatism as well as a number of other medical disorders. Today it is used in the treatment of warts and in veterinary medicine in breeding farm animals.
Blister beetles would have been easy to acquire. They often swarm within alfalfa fields, and most often in fields next to weedy areas that are likely to contain an abundance of grasshopper eggs, on which they feed. They also can be found clustered on an evergreen shrub used for hedges, or olive, ash or elder trees.
By tradition, the beetles were gathered before sunrise while unable to fly. The collectors veiled their faces and hands before shaking them down onto cloths laid out on the ground. The beetles were then dried, and heated until they disintegrated into a fine powder, which has a bight green metallic lustre.
When swallowed, a person would experience a burning sensation in the throat and stomach, have difficulty swallowing, experience nausea and abdominal pain, vomit blood-stained material, feel an intense thirst, and have diarrhoea with traces of blood and mucus. Sometimes blisters form on the mouth and parts of the intestine.
All in all: not very romantic!