Suffering from “the spleen”

My blogosphere silence lately has been due to the extreme busy-ness of conferences, Pitch Wars, and my own editing, but I found this interesting tidbit while researching Renaissance life and health, and I had to post about it. I’m reading the letters of a seventeenth century woman who complains of suffering from “the spleen.” Her symptoms sound like depression and/or general anxiety disorder, so I did a bit of research and, sure enough, “the spleen” was the sixteenth century catch-all term for those and related mental health problems.

This was interesting to me because of the similarities and differences between mental health then and now. The symptoms were recognizable: moodiness, withdrawal, long-lasting “blue” feelings, irritability, trouble sleeping and/or oversleeping, and general nervousness or worry. Mental illness is not a phenomenon belonging only to the modern world.

One thing that was refreshing was the general Renaissance medical consensus that mental illness had a physical component: it was called “the spleen” because Renaissance doctors believed the symptoms were caused by an imbalance of the “four humors” that made up the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) caused, in this instance, by trouble in the spleen. With some modern folks claiming that mental illness and other hard-to-quantify health problems are just in the sufferers’ imaginations, it’s good to remember that it was recognized centuries ago as a real, physical health issue resulting from chemical imbalances in the body (even if early physicians weren’t clear on what those chemicals were).

On the disappointing side, there was a stigma even then against “the spleen” as being a woman’s illness. Though my seventeenth-century letter writer recognized some of the symptoms in the man she was writing to, she hesitated to “accuse” him of suffering from a “feminine” disease. This attitude persists today, making men less likely to seek help for their mental health issues. I also suspect it’s why mental illness came to be taken less seriously as a medical issue–as later generations focused on women’s perceived weaknesses, they began more and more to see mental illness as just a sign that women can’t handle much of anything (studying serious topics, thinking about politics, eating meat…), leaving countless men and women to suffer in silence (or in horrendous institutions for hiding away the mentally ill) until the recent push for reconsidering our understanding of mental illness.

I think mental illness is a topic we should shed more light on and continue to de-stigmatize, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in my upcoming NaNoWriMo writing project.

portrait_of_a_patient_from_surrey_county_asylum_no-_13_8408235032
A Victorian woman institutionalized for mental illness. A better understanding of mental health might have freed her from her prison-like existence. From the UK National Media Museum.

 

Sink or swim: Elizabethan style

I have a scene in my Elizabethan work-in-progress that requires several of the characters to jump into the water, and one of my critique partners asked, “Would they know how to swim?”

That’s an important question. It would be awkward to have the book end with all the main characters drowning (or worse, miraculously developing a skill they shouldn’t have), and Elizabethans were generally wary of water. I was pretty sure I’d read that Elizabethan men sometimes swam for fun (they “bathed” in rivers and ponds anyway, at least during the summer), and I assume people who worked in and around the water could at least dog paddle, but I thought I’d better make sure. Luckily, I found a charming work by Everard Digby, “De Arte Natandi,” a swimming manual written in Latin and published in 1587 (overlapping with when my book takes place).

The fact that it’s a how-to guide and in Latin indicates that swimming was probably not, in fact, a very popular sport among Elizabethans (at least not the upper crust ones–maybe those who didn’t know Latin did know how to take advantage of free outdoor recreation). Considering it was done outside and in the nude, it was also a decidedly male pastime. Still, I feel that I can justify my characters surviving their dunking. Everard Digby also gets bonus points for having a pretty cool name and for being a crypto-Catholic like some of my characters (remaining Catholic despite its being illegal and being fiercely persecuted at times, especially in the 1580s).

For your entertainment, here’s one of the illustrations from his book. I’d love to hear a modern swimmer’s take on the technique. 🙂

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Christmas is cancelled; the Yanks captured Santa: Christmas in the Antebellum and Civil War-era South

When we think of traditional Christmases, we often picture the Victorian era, with its mistletoe, decorated Christmas trees, and carolers. Not all Victorian-era people were gung-ho about Christmas, though, as evidenced by The Journals of David Golightly Harris, 1855-1870 (edited by Philip N. Racine, University of Tennessee Press, 1997). These journals are a great resource about the life of a middling, slave-holding Southerner before, during, and after the Civil War, even including his wife’s voice as she keeps records for him while he’s fighting. It also gives some glimpses into the brutal lives of slaves. Amidst all this, we learn about Christmas traditions south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Some of the traditions are familiar to us. Santa Claus brings presents to the children, and friends and families gather for large Christmas dinners. It’s also a time of reflection on the past. Harris mentions grog and whiskey as part of the festivities, which may or may not resonate with modern Christmas celebrants. There’s no mention of Christmas trees or caroling.

More unusual Christmas traditions mentioned by Harris include fox hunting, firecrackers, and shooting off guns. They also held “egg-nogs,” which seem to have involved making and consuming the drink with groups of friends. The festivities lasted for several days, usually until the 28th, and Harris repeats a folk belief that the weather in the twelve days between Christmas and “old Christmas” (Twelfth Night) portends the weather in the years to come. The slaves got time off as well (unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how they celebrated), leading to Harris to grumble about having to wait on himself. In fact, Harris thinks the Christmas holiday is dying out—perhaps not as vibrant as he remembers it as a child—and since he finds it dull and tiresome, he doesn’t seem to regret its demise in the Antebellum years.

His attitude toward Christmas changes during and after the war. He still believes it’s a fading holiday, but he is sorry to think it will soon be gone. Santa brings no presents to the children in the deepest part of the war (perhaps none were to be had), and Harris hints that they told the children that the Yankees captured Santa and his presents. Fewer people came to visit and there was less to eat. The older people turned reflective in the face of death and deprivation, but the children still played and found ways to enjoy themselves, showing that some things about human nature change very little over time.

A Victorian evening at home

Leisure time wasn’t much of a problem for a lot of Regency and Victorian working class families, but the more well-to-do found themselves with evenings that had to be filled with something. All those accomplishments ladies sought after, which might seem frivolous to us today, came in handy. They could read, play cards, write letters, do needlework, draw, sing, play instruments, write stories, perform plays, etc. Jane Austen started her writing career to amuse her family members, and the March sisters in Little Women performed Jo’s melodramas.

They had some entertainments that seem odd to us today, like putting on a tableau. This was a bit like charades, except they would put together an elaborate scene with props and costumes and silently hold the pose as their audience admired it and perhaps tried to guess what they were re-enacting.

Other of their activities would be very familiar to us. Board games have an ancient history and were played in the 1700s and 1800s, and jigsaw puzzles had their advent around this time. Jigsaw puzzles were called dissected maps or dissections until the late 1800s, as the originals were cut up maps or other educational pictures. (I tried using the term “dissected picture” in context in one of my Victorian novels, but my beta readers were so confused I relented and called it a puzzle.)

My husband collects old board games, and he found this replica dissection for me. It’s a picture showing all the rulers of England from William I to George II. My kids like puzzles, and they loved this one. So, we spent a nice Victorian-style evening putting it together several times. At this rate, the kids will have all the British monarchs memorized soon. The tiles even have little facts about each ruler. Those Georgians and Victorians were tricky–always making sure there was a lesson behind the fun (In fact, I’ve heard “fun” was considered a vulgar word–don’t get caught having too much of it!).

A replica "dissection" from 1788
A replica “dissection” from 1788
Details of Queen Anne and King George
Details of Queen Anne and King George

Did Lady Macbeth have a first name? Shakespearean name etiquette

I’m working on an Elizabethan historical fiction, and I’ve been struggling to find out what a male and female character who are lifelong friends would call each other in the sixteenth century. I wrote about it here, but I turned to Shakespeare for more research, and I feel a little more confident about my answers now.

First, the question of Lady Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s play, she has no name of her own. She is simply the wife or lady of Macbeth. That’s her entire identity. Though some of that is dramatic convention, there’s also a lot of historical weight behind it. Elizabethan men and women were defined to a large extent by their social and political roles. Women had no legal standing outside of their family role (though they did sometimes have their own jobs and could hold some positions in the parish or community).

**My site statistics tell me a lot of visitors come to this page searching for Lady Macbeth’s first name, and I don’t want to disappoint. The Shakespearian character Lady Macbeth is based on a medieval Scottish queen named Gruoch, daughter of Boite, and granddaughter of Cinaed (Kenneth III, King of Scotland). Macbeth was Gruoch’s second husband, and while I’m not familiar with medieval Scottish naming conventions, I’ll bet that she was not called Lady Macbeth in her own days.**

A lot of Shakespeare’s characters are known only by their surname or role, but not all of them. Romeo and Juliet, of course, have first names and use them to address each other, as do Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest, and the characters in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have foreign or fantastical settings, though, so the characters may not be following Elizabethan conventions.

The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place in an England that would have felt contemporary to Shakespeare’s audiences, so it may be more accurate in showing English customs. This is the play, then, I’m trusting the most to help me get my name usage right.

The men usually use “Master So-and-so” when speaking to each other, and sometimes just call each other by their last names, especially when speaking to someone lower down the social ladder. Knights and priests are given the title “Sir” along with their first name. The men also address each other by roles or relationships, such as “cousin.”

The women, likewise, address each other as “Mistress So-and-so,” even when they’re close friends. In families, people use first names, including wives speaking to their husbands. Women call servants by their first or last names (gender doesn’t seem to influence which they use).

The character who interests me the most for my purposes is young Anne Page, who’s being courted by several men in the play. All the men–whether courting her or not–generally refer to her as Anne Page or Mistress Anne, and when speaking to her, most call her Mistress Anne. The exception is her favorite beau, who calls her Anne or Sweet Nan. She calls him Master Fenton (Fenton is probably his surname).

So, “Master” or “Mistress” was generally used as a sign of respect, often with last names, but sometimes with first names when the people knew each other well and/or one of them was much younger (I don’t think married women were ever addressed as “Mistress First-name,” and I’m getting the assumption that young men would use “Master First-name” with each other from Much Ado About Nothing).

First names might be used alone between single men and women, but this was probably more common when the couple was courting or at least had a romantic interest–friends would probably still use Master/Mistress. Unlike the Victorians, however, using first names does not seem to have been an indication of betrothal. Also, the use of first names alone seems to have been reserved for private moments. In public, more formal address was probably considered proper.

This all applies to middle class Elizabethans. Members of the nobility would have had titles to complicate matters. Servants seem to have been more relaxed in their name etiquette, and might call each other by just surnames or even first names regardless of gender.

Using Google Ngram Viewer for historical fiction and historical fantasy

Google Ngram Viewer is one of the writing tools I turn to often when writing a story with a historical setting. This tool searches Google’s vast collection of online books (5 million plus) for the words or phrases you enter and graphs the frequency that the word appears in print. Since it’s searching printed books, it’s pretty sparse when dealing with the Renaissance or Early Modern era, but if you’re into the Regency and Victorian periods, it’s a great help. It does have some options for foreign language books as well.

For instance, during the Victorian period, the cravat of Regency fame evolved into a close relative of our modern necktie. When I’m describing my male character’s clothing, though, I don’t want to say necktie, because that will give my modern readers the wrong mental image (especially if they picture colorful modern ties). On the other hand, I don’t want to call it a cravat if that’s not what the Victorians would have said. So, I went to Google’s Ngram Viewer:

https://books.google.com/ngrams

I entered “cravat” and “necktie,” separated by commas, so they would appear on the same graph. It told me the word “necktie” first appeared in print in the late 1850s, but “cravat” continued to dominate literature until after 1900.

There are some things to be aware of with Google Ngram Viewer. “Cravat” still appears frequently in modern books, almost as often as “necktie.” Why? Because we love Regency and Victorian novels. Not many people would say cravat now–most of us would even say tie instead of necktie–but the word still appears in print because of historical fiction. Still, given the dominance of “cravat” in literature through the end of the Victorian period, I feel pretty safe assuming it was still being used to refer to contemporary Victorian fashion. (Also, it was the word I wanted to use to keep my historical flavor, so I’m prejudiced in its favor.)

Another thing to remember with Google Ngram Viewer is it doesn’t understand the evolution of a word’s meaning; it just tells you if a word was used in print. So, the word “lover” appears more frequently in Victorian literature than in modern, according to the Ngram Viewer. Don’t let this overthrow your ideas of Victorian propriety–they used “lover” to mean a suitor or romantic interest, not necessarily to imply physical intimacy as it would today. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bennett says Wickham, “… simpers, and smirks, andmakes love to us all,” he certainly doesn’t mean it in the modern sense! This is where a good dictionary that includes archaic meanings comes in handy for the writer, and where readers might need context clues to make sure they understand how you’re using the word (and some words you just can’t use–they’ve acquired too much baggage over the years).

Google Ngram Viewer won’t solve all your historical word choice dilemmas, but it can help you determine if a word is appropriate for setting the right tone for your historical fiction or fantasy. It’s also a fun way to waste time when you’re supposed to be writing, and you can call it research.

Buried in woollen; or, Life, liberty, and the right to eat hamburgers any day of the week

I’ve been reading through some English sources from the late 1600s that mentioned people being “Buried in Woollen.” I wondered at first if Woollen was a place, but there were notes throughout about people not complying. So I did some more research and discovered this random history fact of the day:

In 1666 and again in 1678, King Charles II passed laws that made it illegal to be buried in anything but British wool cloth. No fancy clothes. No white linen shrouds. Plain old wool. Why? To bolster the all-important English wool trade, of course. Everyone’s going to die, and the last thing they’re going to do on their way out is support the national economy. The only exceptions were plague victims (bury them fast to avoid getting infected) and the very poor. If you didn’t comply, you paid a 5 pound fine–a pretty significant sum back then. Some people thought it was worth the fine to be buried in their best clothes, and eventually enforcement got pretty lax, so in the early 1800s the law was finally repealed. But if you’re a writer burying a character in Britain between 1666 and 1814, make sure they’re wearing their woollens!

So what’s that have to do with your right to eat a hamburger right now if that’s what you’re craving?

During the Renaissance, Monarch and Parliament regulated almost every aspect of life and death: what their citizens ate, drank, wore, and read, where they went to church (and they had to go), and where and how they were married and buried. The law also had a significant impact on where people could travel, what work they did, who could inherit their property, and sometimes even who they would marry.

Modern governments still regulate some of these aspects of life, especially when they might impact public safety, but usually not with the same attention to detail as Renaissance governments. Are you an author? Or maybe you’re planning a vacation? In Renaissance England, you couldn’t print a book or travel abroad without the government’s express approval of your plans and of your good character. When the government wanted to support the fishing trade, they banned the eating of meat during much of the year. No hamburgers unless they said so.

People accepted many of these restrictions and rebelled against others quietly, but those who did so loudly found themselves in jail (gaol, as they spelled it) or at the gallows. These words from 1776 may not seem like much more than nostalgia and idealism to us today, but keeping in mind previous attitudes about people’s relationship with the state, they were revolutionary in more ways than one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”