Baroque Explorations

“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 also back into researching the 18th century Napoleonic era 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

Honey, figs and red dove feet: cosmetic secrets of the Middle Ages


A blog post on—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.


  • Lipstick: red dove feet mixed with brazil wood and alum
  • Toothpaste: nutmeg
  • Nail polish: henna

Here are some priceless quotes:

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.

July 28, 2014 @ 12:37 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

“Spanish Fly”—a deadly Viagra of the past

Untitled 2

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.”

—1611, Beaumont

“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.

Spanish FlyBad

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!

March 3, 2014 @ 3:17 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Happy Holidays!

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December 16, 2013 @ 1:08 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A special exhibition at Malmaison on Josephine and Napoleon’s house reveals a treasure trove of information

I just this moment sent off the first draft of The Game of Love, the current working title of my first young adult novel about Josephine’s daughter Hortense. (It went to free-lance editor Allison McCabe, my first reader and editor.)


This morning I checked spelling before sending it off. In consulting Google on how to spell the name of Josephine and Napoleon’s little house in Paris, I discovered that there is now an exhibit at Malmaison about this house, providing information that is very hard to come by. Information I badly need! Plus this tempting bit: “Computer reconstructions and models bring this residence to life and let visitors view it on all sides.”  


Torture! I so want to see it! 

Luckily, with a little tenacious searching, I found an extensive pdf about the exhibition which one can read on Google Play. It reveals  a great deal:

Chantereine in 3D

A map shows it’s location and the very long drive down to the house from the rue de la Victoire.


Another map shows the locations of other properties in the neighbourhood—but does not show a house belonging to Napoleon’s sister Pauline and her husband, although it is often claimed that they bought a house close-by. (Note to self: more research needed.)

But here is a treasure of a find: a table that becomes Josephine’s desk. A desk features significantly in my novel, and this may well be it. 

Jo's desk

The excitement of research! 

December 4, 2013 @ 6:57 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Let’s talk corsets


This is an excellent article: What it’s like to wear Victorian corsets and underwear today

corsets book

And here’s the book, which I’ve yet to read by will definitely have a look at: Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself.

Another book to look into, one that goes into the history of the corset, which is of most interest to me, is The Corset, a Cultural History, by Valerie Steele, and published by Yale University Press. 

corset history

Ever wonder how ladies got wasp-like waists? 

Now you know! 

torture corset


December 2, 2013 @ 1:19 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

Internet enchantment: lost in the archives again

One of my favourite blogs is BibliOdyssey, which I’ve mentioned a few times before. It’s a visual historical blog, and it invariably takes my breath away. The entry on “Noble Country Living” is especially rich. 

It shows illustrations from Georgica Curiosa, a 3-volume work published in 1682 by Wolf Helmhardt von Hohberg, covering all aspects of daily rural life.

What a feast for a historian! Here are only a few of the illustrations: 

Georgica Curiosa 1682 - Noble Land + Country Life h Georgica Curiosa 1682 - Noble Land + Country Life k Georgica Curiosa 1682 - Noble Land + Country Life l Georgica Curiosa 1682 - Noble Land + Country Life o

For more illustrations and information, be sure to go to the BibliOdyssey website. Wonderfully, the book is online (click “overview” to get to the pages). 

Druck von 1682 1408074


November 17, 2013 @ 8:44 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

“Turd in your teeth!” A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

This is fascinating! I’ve just ordered Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr. 

For the Young Adult novel I’m writing now, I’ve been trying to figure out what obscenity Caroline Bonaparte might throw out as an emotional and angry teen. “Turd in your teeth!” might well be a contender. 

November 12, 2013 @ 3:02 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

Two outstanding virtual history tours …

I find these virtual history tours enchanting. 

St. Andrews Cathedral in Scotland (1318):

And this award-winning virtual tour of 17th century London before the fire of 1666:

Also have a look at History in Colour, another experiment in bringing history to life. It’s surprising what a difference colour makes.

Enjoy! If you know of other virtual tours, let me know. 

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November 11, 2013 @ 3:11 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment