Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Medieval Toilets - How they Pooed in Medieval Times

The reason I love writing historical fiction so much is the challenge and process of researching. I thoroughly enjoy digging into the past to learn how people survived during times of adversity or how they managed their day to day lives. To write a historical novel means you must immerse yourself completely in all the details that pertain to that period, from clothing to food, from marriage and death practices, and even how they managed their human waste. 

My novels (Orphan of the Olive Tree, The Novice, and The Pendant) all take place during the medieval period. Here's a piece of research that helps explain a little bit about toilets during these early centuries. It's a bit on the funny side, but pretty accurate. Enjoy....

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Daughters of the King - Filles du Roi

While I was researching my novel, The Betrothal, which is set in early 18th century New France, I learned about the daughters of the King, or Filles du Roi. You see, in the new world, especially New France, there were many more men than women. So the King of France at the time, especially chose daughters of good moral character to travel to New France and marry in order to populate the territory. The women were treated extremely well, and when they arrived, they had their choice of potential husbands among a huge number of eligible men.   Good records were kept of these brave young women who did their duty by marrying and producing children. This brief video describes this fascinating 18th century program.    

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome

The mysteries and secrets of Vestal Virgins!

In Ancient Rome, the vestal virgins were virgin female priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth.  They were tasked with maintaining the sacred fire of Vesta.

This duty was a great great honor and granted the women many privileges and honors.  They were the only female priests within the Roman religious system.

The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the vestal virgins a popular subject in the 18th century and the 19th century.

The objects of the cult were essentially the hearth fire and pure water drawn into a clay vase.

A Roman man by the name of Numa Pompilius introduced the vestal virgins and assigned them salaries from the public treasury.

He stole the first vestal virgin from her parents.  More vestal virgins were added later.  The women became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state.  

Numa Pompillius

The chief vestal oversaw the efforts of the vestals.  The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia in 380. The College of Vestal Virgins ended in 394, when the fire was extinguished and the vestal virgins disbanded by order of Theodosius I.

The vestal virgins were committed to the priesthood at a young age (before puberty) and were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years.  These 30 years were, in turn, divided into three periods of a decade each: ten as students, ten in service, and ten as teachers.  Afterwards, they could marry if they chose to do so.

However, few took the opportunity to leave their respected role cause they lived luxuriously and marriage would have required them to submit to the authority of a man, with all the restrictions placed on women by Roman law.  On the other hand, a marriage to a former vestal virgin was highly honoured.

A vestal was chosen by the high priest from young girl candidates between their sixth and tenth year.  To obtain entry into the order they were required to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and to be a daughter of a free born resident in Italy.

To replace a vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief vestal for the selection of the most virtuous.   Once chosen they left the house of their father, were inducted by the pontifex maximus, and their hair was shorn.  The high priest pointed to his choice with the words, "I take you to be a vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a vestal on the best terms".

Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple's sanctuary.  By maintaining Vesta's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as "surrogate housekeepers", in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor's household fire.

The vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony.  In addition, the vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.

The dignities accorded to the vestals were significant.  In an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the Vestal Virgins was required in numerous public ceremonies. 

They travelled in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way.  At public games and performances they had a reserved place of honor.  Unlike most Roman women, they were free to own property, make a will, and vote.  They gave evidence without the customary oath.  They were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and state documents, like public treaties.  Their person was sacrosanct.  Death was the penalty for injuring their person and their escorts protected anyone from assault.  They could free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them - if a person who was sentenced to death saw a vestal virgin on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.   They were allowed to throw ritual straw figurines called Argei, into the Tiber on May 15 celebrations.

Site of the House of Vestal Virgins in Rome

Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out, suggesting that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, was a serious offense and was punishable by scourging.

The chastity of the vestal virgins was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they became vestal virgins they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incest and an act of treason. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus or "Evil Fields" (an underground chamber near the Colline gate) with a few days of food and water.

Ancient tradition required that a disobedient vestal virgin be buried within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law, that no person may be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the vestal would not technically die in the city, but instead descend into a "habitable room". Moreover, she would die willingly. Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare. The vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.

Vestal sentenced to die

Because a vestal's virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the vestal had acted wrongly or that the vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the pontifex maximus, or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body.

While the order of the vestal virgins was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity. The earliest vestals were said to have been whipped to death for having sex.

The paramour of a guilty vestal was whipped to death in the Forum Boarium or on the Comitium.

The chief festivals of Vesta were the Vestalia celebrated June 7 until June 15. On June 7 only, her sanctuary (which normally no one except her priestesses, the vestal virgins, entered) was accessible to mothers of families who brought plates of food. The simple ceremonies were officiated by the vestals and they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the festival. This was the only time when they themselves made the mola salsa, for this was the holiest time for Vesta, and it had to be made perfectly and correctly, as it was used in all public sacrifices.

Vestals wore an infula, a suffibulum and a palla. The infula was a long headdress that draped over the shoulders. Usually found underneath were red and white woolen ribbons. The suffibulum was the brooch that clipped the palla together. The palla was a simple mantle, wrapped around the vestal virgin. The brooch and mantle were draped over the left shoulder.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A 14th Century Italian Woman's Hairstyle

An Italian medieval hairstyle of 14th Century Siena recreated!

Hairstyles of ancient times are preserved in the era's frescos, paintings, and statues. From these images, the styles can be successfully recreated and recorded. Here is the hairstyle of a woman based on an image in Siena in the year 1328. Fascinating.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pizzelle - My Ultimate Favourite Italian Cookie

Pizzelle (pit-sell-eh) - Pizzelle are a traditional cookie from the Abruzzi regionof Italy. They are thin wafer cookies that look almost like a waffle. The word pizelle means little, round, and flat.

For decades, blacksmiths forged pizzelle irons out of cast iron with a family crest or the name of the woman. These were passed down from generation to generation, just as a precious piece of jewelery.

According to an article from the Lonely Planet Publications on the Festival of the Snakes:

Legend has it that the mountainous and bucolic area around Abruzzo was once so infested by snakes that life tended to the short, sharp and brutal rather than the long and cheerful. The local shepherds, back in 700 BC, appealed to Apollo for help. His advice was to capture the snakes, domesticate them by draping them around his statue and then release them into the bush again. 

Curiously, this seemed to work and the ritual has been replayed ever since. Somewhere along the way, however, the fickle mortals dumped the old Greek gods for the newish Christian gods and indulged in a bit of historical revisionism. Apollo became Saint Domenica and a few touches of modernity, like fireworks, were added to the ritual.

Celebrations begin on St Joseph's Day, 19 March, when the first snakes of the season are netted and caged. Two months later, on the first Thursday in May, the village is stirred by an 8am revelry call of fireworks, followed by a traditional mass. After the mass, the statue of Saint Domenica is hauled through the streets of Colcullo, where villagers drape the captured serpents, boa-like, around the stone neck of Saint Domenica.

This ritual and the procession is usually accompanied by a noisy band of villagers, barking dogs and merry-makers. At the edge of the village the squirming mass is released back into the bush and the villagers, so it is said, are immune from snake bites for another year.

Today, pizzelles continue to be revered and celebrated at feasts. In the small Abruzzi town of Salle, they honor a 12th century monk named Beato Roberto. Celebrants attach pizzelle to tree branches and proceed down the street with them.

Although my mother still uses her pizzelle iron (a cherished heirloom she brought with her from the old country when she immigrated to Canada in the 1950's, I prefer to use a modern, electronic model.

From the youngest to the oldest, I have yet to meet the person who did not like a pizzelle. During Christmas and Easter and other family get togethers, I see that they are the very first cookie to disappear from the cookie platter.

Here is my favourite pizzelle recipe, handed down through my Abruzzi mother and her mother and grandmothers before her:

6 eggs
7 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3 teaspoons pure anise extract or a few drops of pure anise oil
1 cup melted butter or oil
4 tablespoons baking powder

Beat eggs and sugar. Add cooled melted butter or margarine, and anise extract. Sift flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture. Batter will have a dough like consistency. Form into 1 inch balls and place on the grids in the pizzelle baker. This will make about 150 small pizzelle.