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  • Women in Medieval England by Lynda Telford

    Prostitutes were often depicted as mermaids, as in this illustration from the Luttrell Psalter. (Courtesy of the British Library, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

    Prostitution

    This has always been one of the most misunderstood areas of the lives of women in any era, and women at the centre of the sex industry have endured similar conditions throughout the centuries.

    They have been considered sinful, unclean, the destroyers of happy homes and the carriers of disease – but few of those who used or vilified those women, stopped to consider why they were driven into that way of life, where abuse and contempt bred loss of self-respect, brought danger, and often early death.

    In the medieval period, a woman was defined by her respectability. Whether a pure virgin, or a mature matron, she had certain status, based on that of her family and her prospects as a wife and mother. These were easy to lose. The loss of a husband, the resulting loss of earnings and /or personal dignity, through hardship, could easily lead to desperation, which could entice any woman into the ‘oldest profession’, as a way of keeping body and soul together.

    Once on the slippery slope of becoming a “common woman” she also lost the support and approval of the church, and instead found herself opposed to all that was legal and decent in the society around her.

    Fornication at an amateur level was always present. Any working man might need to ensure that the woman he married could conceive, so he would try her out first. While to him, this was a sensible precaution, as divorce was not possible, it left her open to the charge of promiscuity, or being a “lecherwyte”. If she became pregnant, and she bore the child outside of marriage, she was also a “childwyte” and both these situations incurred fines.

    Casual fornication was not necessarily a problem BEFORE marriage, but adultery after marriage was, and a woman could be severely punished, whereas a man might be able to shrug off its consequences. An active sex life, if not transmuted at some point into respectability within a marriage, could lead to the degradation of being an out–and–out “fallen woman”.

    Springtime Seduction - 'If we were found, we would be dishonoured.' 'But inside you must come, for our love!' Redrawn from Giacomo Jaquerio's fresco at Castella della Manta in Saluzzo. (1418-1430) (Author, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

    For those already at that level, the brothel gave the only possible, if variable, protection. As a member of a ‘bawdy house’ a woman at least had a roof over her head, and food to keep her working. That roof might be owned by the local landowner, or even the local abbot, as in the case of the Southwark properties of the Bishop of Winchester. This led to the women working in them being known as “Winchester Geese”. The goose-bumps, sometimes contracted from these women, have come down into present day language, though any woman too obviously diseased would find herself thrown out onto the street to fend for herself, without even the doubtful protection given by the organised brothel.

    Organised they certainly were, with the bawdy-house keeper always on the lookout for new women, fresh from the country, hoping for a better life in the towns. Bath-houses became an innovation, where men could wallow in warm water with the woman of their choice, often with food and drink served to them in situ. These at least had the benefit of ensuring that the clients had been washed, before intercourse was attempted.

     

    Some prostitutes could occasionally find themselves on the RIGHT side of the law, if they proved useful as “testers” in impotence cases. This was the only way a married woman could hope for an annulment, by proving that her husband was incapable of doing his duty, providing her with a sex life and with children. The York Cause Books give many examples of men being examined by a panel of respectable matrons, to decide whether they could achieve an erection. Sometimes a “tester” wasn’t quite so respectable, and in York a local whore named Margery Grey (professionally known as Cherrylips) was used instead. It was possibly believed she would be comfortable exposing herself to strange men, as well as probably being younger and more attractive, and more likely to gain some sexual response.

    The men who failed the test would have their marriages dissolved, and would find it difficult to make another, due to their inability to perform their husbandly duty.

    Some women were tricked, or otherwise forced, into prostitution. The archetypal innocent country girl was a common victim, being offered a living-in place as a servant, only to find that sleeping with strange men formed part of her duty. The landlord could then claim that she owed him money, and she could be imprisoned until she paid it, either in cash (usually impossible) or by selling sex.

    Naughty Nuns - Redrawn from a medieval original in the MS Douce 264, showing disobedient nuns being taken home to their convent in a wheelbarrow, pushed by a naked man. (Author, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

    A slightly more unusual “female” whore was John Rykener, a transvestite prostitute caught with a client in the hayloft of an Inn. He was wearing women’s clothing, calling himself Eleanor, and claimed to be an embroideress. All very amusing – but the penalty for sodomy was being burned! John was arrested and turned up in court still dressed as a woman, apparently oblivious to the danger he was in. The judge did not appear to want to exact the full penalty, so charged John with “defrauding his clients of their expectations”. The pretence that any of his clients imagined he was really a female saved his life, and he was merely fined.

    The clergy were not exempt from the prevailing hypocrisy regarding sex. There were even some brothels known to cater exclusively for priests, while nuns, often in convents against their will, could also find opportunities to have a good time. One nunnery near Wakefield in Yorkshire became notorious, and the Bishop had to step in. He was finally convinced of the goodness of the nuns, by the lover of one of them!

    So, despite the official line that all prostitution was a menace to society, many people at all levels not only indulged in it, but made money from it. The only losers, as always, were the women at the bottom of the pile, the prostitutes themselves. Few of them could hope to save enough to start their own business, so the used and abused, cast off when no longer serviceable, remained the dregs of society, often through no fault of their own.

    While Magdalen houses were quite common in Europe, for the rehabilitation of such women, they were less usual in England, and the sex workers were left to live and die in the shadows.

    Lynda Telford's new book Women in Medieval England is available for purchase now.

  • Dresses and Dressmaking by Pam Inder

    Clara Dare's dress, c. 1868. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    From the Late Georgians to the Edwardians

    In my working life I was a museum curator, looking after collections of ‘applied arts’ – which means furniture, ceramics, glass, silver, textiles, dresses and so on. I soon realised that when we put on an exhibition of ceramics, silver, glass, or furniture the display labels concentrated on where and when the item was made and by whom. With dresses, the information we supplied was largely descriptive – ‘Dress of cotton printed with small pink and green flowers, c.1790’, for example. If we knew anything about where the garment came from it usually related to the wearer – so the label would then be something like ‘Wedding dress of ivory silk worn by Jane Smith when she married John Robinson in September 1863’. Not until the late 19th century when makers began to put labels in their garments did we have any knowledge of the firms or individuals who made the dresses in our collection.

    Yet making a dress of expensive fabric that fits and flatters the wearer, is robust enough to withstand years of wear and conforms to the fashion of the day requires as much skill and knowledge of materials as, say, fine wood carving or glass blowing, particularly as dress patterns as we know them did not come on the market until the 1870s. Prior to that there had been a few books with diagrams that had to be scaled up and adapted to fit, but most dressmakers made their own patterns, either from an old dress that they unpicked or by pinning and draping material on their clients.

     

    Dress of white tambour-embroidered muslin, early 1850s. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    I became interested in the women who made our clothes – and given that most of the dresses I was curating were made post-1770, dressmakers were nearly always women. Up to the 1690s those women’s dresses that were not made at home were made by tailors, and tailoring was a guild occupation so tailors were almost invariably men. By the 1690s some women, calling themselves ‘mantua makers’ after a new style of dress that had originated in France in the mid-1670s and become very popular, began to infiltrate the trade, though not without considerable opposition from the tailors who saw half their trade disappearing into the hands of pesky women! However, by 1800, women had a near monopoly of the dressmaking trade.

    I wanted to know more about these people. Who were they, how did they learn their trade, how much did they earn? How did they take over the trade? I soon learnt that it was not the feminist triumph it might at first appear. Dressmakers, particularly in the first half of the 19th century, worked unbelievably long hours, often in wretched conditions, and earned very little. The making up of a dress often cost no more than the price of a single yard of the fabric from which it was made. The trade was oversubscribed – it was one of the few ‘respectable’ occupations for women – so there was intense competition and many businesses went under.

    Back view of Purple dress of ribbed silk, c. 1895. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    It turned out there were not a great many actual records for me to examine. ‘Scissors’ writing in 1895 in a pamphlet entitled ‘Why Dressmaking does not pay’ claimed that Many dressmakers keep no book – in other words, many dressmakers did not keep records - even though by 1895 the law obliged them to do so. However, such records as I found presented a coherent picture and I was able to create a fairly full picture of the development of the trade in the 19th century. For the earlier period much less survives – but it is reasonable to suppose that things did not change radically between the 1780s and the early 1800s.

    I became fascinated by account books. In the 18th and 19th centuries many women kept detailed records of their weekly expenditure, probably so they could account for the money they were given by their husbands and fathers. These not only tell us what individual items cost but also enable us to work out how much these individuals spent on dress in total over the course of a year. One such set of accounts – kept by Eliza Stone of Knighton in Leicestershire in the early 19th century is included in the present work.

    Fashion plate from the Dressmaker and Warehouseman's Gazette showing dresses with kilted trimmings. Undated, but mid-1870s. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    No account of the dressmaking trade would be complete without an examination of the actual garments dressmakers made, and this study concentrates on garments in the Leicestershire museums’ collections. These are among the items I used to curate so I know them well and include details and descriptions showing how they were constructed. Because the dresses are nearly all from Leicester and Leicestershire, much of the rest of the book refers to the city and county. This is not as limiting as it might at first sight appear. Leicester was as fashionable as any other county town, it was a wealthy city and much of that wealth came from the manufacture of garments, particularly boots and shoes and knitwear. The county of Leicestershire is a typical English county with its fair share of big houses, stately homes and gentry families. It is also a hunting country and was visited in the winter season by keen huntsman and their families, fashionable people from all over the country, including royalty. A study of dress in the city and county can therefore stand as a study of dress in much of England.

    This is a slim volume and limited in scope. There is much more that could be written about the makers and making of our ancestors’ clothes – and it is hoped that this work will whet the readers’ appetites and encourage them to learn more.

    Pam Inder's new book Dresses and Dressmaking: From the Late Georgians to the Edwardians is available for purchase now.

  • False Economies by S. D. Tucker

    The Strangest, Least Successful and Most Audacious Financial Follies, Plans and Crazes of All Time

    Pies in the Sky: Defeating Communism with Chocolate Coins - examining the bizarre use of chocolate coins as a real-life currency in North Korea.

    Life within the Communist hell-hole of North Korea (or DPRK, as it is officially known) is hard. Its economy is, for the most part, centrally planned, condemning most of its people to have to live in poverty. Ever since the days of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founding father who still technically rules the place even though he is dead, North Korea has pursued a policy of juche, or ‘self-reliance’, which is just another way of saying ‘self-imposed economic isolation’.

    The North has failed to publish any official economic data since 1965, which implies that the only people doing well out of the closed command-economy are the military. Because the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is about as open to outside penetration as a nun’s chastity belt, it seems that most people there don’t have a particularly good understanding of the notion of capitalism – which is why attempts have been made over recent years to try and undermine the nightmare dictatorship’s economy via the use of chocolate biscuits.

    Following a disastrous 1990s famine, the DPRK’s top brass have thankfully allowed some limited economic reforms to take place, the most significant being the creation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in 2002 under the auspices of Kim Jong-il, father of the current chunky little leader, Kim Jong-un. The KIC was a special economic zone in which sealed-off factories operated by 120 South Korean firms employed 50,000 North Korean workers, getting to pay them lower wages than they would back home whilst simultaneously opening up the North to outside influences, or so it was hoped.

    The real motive of the DPRK was to increase their foreign currency reserves; workers’ wages were paid direct to the North’s government, and they then passed back the equivalent sum in North Korean notes to the factory staff – minus some ‘necessary deductions’, naturally. The KIC is currently closed down due to deteriorating relations between North and South, but even whilst open it proved a source of severe controversy because of one particular product its factories were producing … Choco Pies.

    Choco Pies are the Far Eastern equivalent of Wagon Wheels, being two little circles of cake filled with marshmallow and covered over in chocolate, manufactured by a South Korean company called Orion. Such items may seem unremarkable in the mouth of a capitalist, but confectionaries of this kind were like miracles to the Communists of the North, to whom buttered cardboard is doubtless considered a culinary luxury. To the downtrodden workers of the DPRK, the KIC’s factories contained many hitherto unknown wonders such as toilet-paper (and indeed actual toilets) and the Choco Pies were yet another piece of magic from within Aladdin’s Capitalist Cave.

    The South Korean bosses in the KIC factories started paying their workers with free Choco Pies as a non-monetary bonus supplement, hoping to boost morale and increase productivity. The workers seemed pleased with their new bounty, describing them as producing ‘ecstasy’ upon their very tongues, but inspections of the factory workers’ bins revealed something strange – there were no Choco Pie wrappers in them. Why not? Apparently, it was because the workers were taking them home to use as a makeshift currency, deeming them more valuable per unit than many North Korean banknotes were. The chocolate biscuits had become chocolate coins!

    At the height of the craze 120,000 Choco Pies were doled out to the biscuit-hungry plebs each day, with even corrupt soldiers guarding the KIC site demanding their customary bribes in Wagon Wheels instead of banknotes. If you believe the highest estimates, some 2.5 million Choco Pies were being used as coins per month, and trading at a value of £6.40 each, compared to their usual price of 16 pence in South Korea. A more realistic estimate of their value was 25 pence, but this was still 1 per cent of the average weekly wage of £25. So valuable did they become that KIC workers started holding sporting contests and placing massive bets in biscuits.

    This was all quite disturbing to the DPRK authorities because, as well as helping undermine the economy, the mass distribution of Choco Pies was helping undermine the ideological concept of juche as well. If capitalists were so bad, then why were their biscuits so tasty? The phenomenon was dubbed an ‘invasion of the stomach’, and the regime got nervous, remembering the old argument that the Iron Curtain ended up being torn down because the suppressed proletariat of Eastern Europe, jealous of blue Levis, had wanted to get their hands on more Western consumer goods.

    Several measures were adopted by the DPRK Politburo to stem the crisis, with all Choco Pie bonuses being banned in 2014 in favour of wage top-ups of free sausages instead. Another tactic was to spread fake news about the Choco Pies; according to North Korean media, the biscuits had been infected with unspecified ‘weird substances’ by the South, intended to ‘shake our national defence’ or cause illness. In some sense the Choco Pies were really undercover secret agents, which were ‘spying and scheming’ upon behalf of their capitalist masters, hoping to create a situation where ‘the ideology of the people could wither at any moment’. These ‘sweet symbols of capitalism’ were then replaced by the North with cheap forged knock-off versions, a breed of pirated pies which just didn’t taste as nice, thereby undermining the pseudo-currency’s value.

    Alternatively, DPRK officials warned that the Oriental Wagon Wheels contained miniature bombs or highly powerful biological agents which would immediately give you cancer ‘and make your body suffer’ if you so much as touched one. Foreign food, it was said, ‘contains material that is harmful to socialism’, so had to be prodded away into a designated safe area with a long stick. According to one South Korean academic, ‘When North Koreans see high quality consumer goods [like Choco Pies] produced overseas, they begin to understand that their economic system doesn’t really deliver.’ If it can so easily be undermined by generic marshmallow treats, then the North Korean economy really must be in trouble; should all the currency within the DPRK’s Treasury come one day to be made entirely from confectionary, there is a severe danger Fat Boy Kim might just eat it.

    S. D. Tucker's new book False Economies: The Strangest, Least Successful and Most Audacious Financial Follies, Plans and Crazes of All Time is available for purchase now.

  • Great British Gardeners by Vanessa Berridge

    The title page of the original edition of Gerald's Herball, published by Queen Elizabeth I's printer, John Norton, in 1597. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners

    My late father believed that people liked gardening because it was an aspect of their lives that they could control. I always thought he was wrong, as the vagaries of nature lie well beyond human agency. But the style of gardening in the 1950s and 1960s was to plant bright, long-flowering annuals and serried rows of dahlias. It only recently occurred to me that my father’s gardening wasn’t just influenced by gardening fashion, but that the fashion itself had been created by what he and his contemporaries had endured during the chaos of world war. For them, a garden was somewhere they could take charge. They blasted aphids, slugs and other pests with chemicals (no thoughts then about climate change), and would have hated the loose grasses and textural planting of a later, more informal age.

    This is the underlying theme of Great British Gardeners: From Early Plantsmen to Chelsea Medal Winners. This book follows on from my earlier The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew (also published by Amberley) about the political background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759. That book put gardening at the heart of eighteenth-century political life, because gardening, whether we realise it or not, is a political act. Gardening styles down the centuries have been influenced by many different factors, such as fluctuations in trade, war, industrial developments and environmental issues.

    Through the lives of twenty-six gardeners, I have explored four centuries of British history, showing what gardens and those who garden them tell us about political, social and economic concerns in each period.

     

    Illustration from Thomas Fairchild's The City Gardener. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I have started with John Gerard, who, in 1597, published his Herball, or General Historie of Plants, used as a practical handbook into the nineteenth century. A qualified barber-surgeon, Gerard, had a wide knowledge of plants because he used them in his work. He was gardening and botanising during the Elizabethan age which saw a huge expansion in trade and the beginnings of British colonialism. Gerard travelled across northern Europe with merchant companies acquiring plants, and also invested £25 in the Virginia Company, set up to finance an early colonial settlement in America. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and John Donne, and shared their relish for language. That is why, 400 years later, his Herball remains a wonderful living, breathing book. To understand the Elizabethan age, look no further than John Gerard.

    In the eighteenth century lived a nurseryman called Thomas Fairchild. From a humble, rural background, he had little education, but wrote a charming and evocative book about gardening in London. Published in 1722, The City Gardener was aimed at the merchant class, who, enriched by British trade, now had the leisure to garden. He was also the first known hybridiser, dusting the pollen from a wild carnation on to the stigma of a sweet william. He was nervous about tinkering with nature, for it was still regarded as blasphemous even among the supposedly free-thinking members of the Royal Society. It was a century and a half later before the term ‘hybridisation’ was coined and it became an accepted horticultural practice. Next time you buy a tray of annuals from the garden centre, spare a thought for Mr Fairchild.

     

    Venus's Vale at Rousham. (Author's collection, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    The eighteenth-century English Landscape Movement was a reaction against the French-inspired formalism of the Stuart period. The Whig aristocrats, architects of the Protestant Hanoverian succession, used their estates to symbolise on the ground the political changes in the country, as Britain became a nation and moved towards a constitutional monarchy. William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown were the two great figures of this movement, smoothing out the landscape for their aristocratic patrons. This new naturalism was intended to evoke the liberties of the British political system as opposed to the rigid autocracy of the French Catholic monarchy.

    Gardening was once a path out of poverty to fame and riches. That was certainly true in the nineteenth century, when Joseph Paxton rose to become one of the country’s leading figures, and the only gardener of my twenty-six to receive a knighthood. He was a landscape designer, an architect, a duke’s confidential friend, a botanical writer, a magazine and newspaper proprietor, an industrialist and railway magnate, a financial speculator, a politician and a visionary. This gardener’s boy was the personification of the Victorian self-made man, and his elaborate, contrived gardens reflected his age’s grand self-confidence.

    Reaction came, as it does: the 1860s saw the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which stressed the importance of craftwork and socialism, as against factory production and over-weaning capitalism. Again, gardens mirrored what was happening in the country: William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll turned away from the formal parterres packed with industrial quantities of exotic plants needing over-wintering in greenhouses. They chose plants which would flourish naturally in British gardens – alpines for rock gardens and hardy perennials for flowerbeds – anticipating the late twentieth-century gardener Beth Chatto by over a century. Beth Chatto’s principle, ‘the right plant in the right place’, is now an almost universally held gardening motto.

    Gertrude Jekyll at the Deanery, Sonning, home of Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life, c. 1901. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I’ve touched on suburban gardening after the Second World War, with its brief return to Victorian formalism. But horticultural currents continued to flow in the direction established by Robinson and Jekyll, as exemplified by the Chelsea Flower Show. Each year, the show is dominated by gardens designed and planted to raise concerns about climate change, care for the environment, conservation of water, and health. Turn on the News at Six: all these issues will be covered at some point in most bulletins.

    One of the most successful Chelsea designers in recent years, Tom Stuart-Smith, unites in his work many of the themes discussed in the book, as well as hinting at the rich variety in our contemporary culture. His gardens capture the spirit of the past, the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, current environmental thinking, and a sense that a garden is a microcosm of society.

    Vanessa Berridge's new book Great British Gardeners: From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners is available for purchase now.

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