From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Keeping Warm, 17th Century Style

Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I know, I know, there's nothing that can be done about the weather, but for most of America, this January has been a doozy. Record snowfalls, ice by the bucket, sub-zero temperatures: if this isn’t the winter of our discontent, then I don’t know what is.

When we’re not talking/whining/weeping about the cold, we’re figuring out the best ways to keep warm. For a ten-minute trip to the grocery, we’re outfitted for arctic exploration. We shroud ourselves in layers of wool, fleece, and down, weigh the various merits of North Face vs. Under Armor, and discourse on the calculations necessary to determine the wind-chill.

All of which made me think of one of my favorite historical prints: Winter, etched by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1643 (from the collections of the British Museum.)

Hollar winter jpg

This lady represents the height of winter-wear fashion in seventeenth century London, prepared to face whatever the weather may bring in considerable style. Here’s the caption:

The cold, not cruelty, makes her wear
In Winter furs and wild beasts’ hair
For a smoother skin at night
Embraceth her with more delight.

What’s she wearing? To begin, she’s layered several mohair petticoats in different colors, looping them over her arm to protect them from the dirt of the streets. Of course that also reveals the lace border on her underskirt and the silk rosette on her high-heeled shoe, the sort of details calculated to drive the gallants wild. She’s tied a quilted silk hood over her hair and a mask to protect her complexion from the cold, and perhaps to hide her identity on her way to an assignation. Certainly some gentleman, whether husband or lover, is supporting her (and enjoying that “smoother skin at night”?), because she’s sporting a costly sable tippet over her shoulders and an enormous sable muff over her arm, all thanks to the burgeoning fur trade with New England. Muffs were also considered erotically enticing, especially when lined with cherry-colored silk.

And if all this early consumerism weren’t clear enough, the artist has shown her walking in the prosperous London neighborhood of Cornhill. The winter sky is filled with the smoke of coal fires and the tower of the first Royal Exchange (one of the earliest enclosed malls, with galleries of shops selling luxury goods)is in the background.

One last note about keeping warm in seventeenth-century London. According to diarist Samuel Pepys, a favorite drink in winter taverns was a concoction called “lamb’s wool”: buttered ale served hot, and garnished with roasted spiced apples. Yum!

From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Happy Plough Monday!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Kingsfavorite To most Englishmen and women living before the twentieth century came creeping in, Christmas was more of a holiday “season” than the modern one-day extravaganza, with many smaller, specialized celebrations spread out over two weeks.

One of these celebrations that has been largely forgotten is Plough Monday. Traditionally the first Monday after the Twelve Days of Christmas, Plough Monday represented the end of the holiday season in rural communities, and signaled the return to labor.

Like many holidays, this one began with religious roots. On the Sunday before Plough Monday, ploughmenPlough Monday jpb would carry their ploughs into church for a blessing for the new year, a prayer for good crops, health, and prosperity. It’s similar to christening a new boat or pinning a bit of greenery to the cross-post of a newly framed house: an entirely human wish for a fresh start and good luck, a happy mixture of ancient pagan superstition and Christian ritual.

The day that followed –– Plough Monday –– was a whole different affair. This was pure pagan revelry and excess, more kin to Halloween than Christmas, and the last real holiday before the long, grim winter months. On Plough Monday, the newly-blessed plows would be festively decorated with ribbons, and the Plough-Boy or Plough-Bullock (the name varies) would carry your plough throughout the neighborhood, demanding pennies. Anyone foolish enough to ignore these demands had their yard or garden cheerfully ploughed into a muddy mess, an earlier form of t.p.’ing the house that gives bum candy to trick-or-treaters.

The collected pennies were contributed to a village-wide “frolic” later in the day. The frolic involved all kinds of foolery with the decorated ploughs as the centerpiece, from Molly-dancing to mummer’s plays to mock sword-fights to kissing games, overseen by a cross-dressing “queen” –– usually the most burly and unattractive man to be found in the village, and likely the one with the best sense of humor, too –– who was known as Bessy for the duration of his/her reign.

And, of course, there was drinking. Lots and lots and LOTS of drinking.

For more about traditional Plough Mondays, check out this entry from Chamber’s Book of Days. Published in 1879, it already has a little of the golden haze of the quaint past, but you’ll still get the idea. The early 19th century engravings illustrating this blog capture the spirit, too.

Personally, I think Plough Monday is a holiday worth reviving. Imagine all of us writers hauling our Hone computers off to be blessed (probably not a bad idea) for the new year, and then dragging them from door to door as we asked for pennies for a big ol’ celebration of double-mocha-lattés at the nearest Starbuck’s. Surely writers crave our caffeine as much as any ploughmen did their John Barleycorn.

And Happy Plow Monday to you all!

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