Historical Tidbits

A couple of days ago, my mom called me and said "Hi, what're you doing?"

"I was just researching what happens when a body lay in state in late 17th century London," I replied. Such is the life of a writer.

Research is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me, and oh, so much easier. At the beginning, it was tough to know when to stop the research and begin the writing.  At some point I had to put down the books and just start writing, even if I knew some of it was not historically accurate. I figured I could go back and iron out details later.

But I have been interested in Restoration England and the reign of King Charles II since I was a teenager. I've been studying this time period for years, so ending the research in favor of the writing was not such a stretch for me. I did have to do quite a bit of reading on specific details, such as the Popish Plot, but overall I had a good sense of what Restoration England was about.

And if I had any qualms about writing things I knew nothing about, Harlan Coben eased them during a panel at Bouchercon when he said "I just make this shit up."

Accurate historical details are important to me, yes. But at the end of the day, I write fiction. It's my job to make shit up!

All that said, I thought it would be fun to post some historical tidbits about the time period I'm writing about, 1678 London:

1) By law, one had to attend church on Sundays (Church of England) or be fined.
 
2) Women were 4 times more likely to die in the first decade of marriage than men, but if a woman lived past her child-bearing years, she had a longer life expectancy than her husband.

3) Brunette was the fashionable hair color.

4) Donkey's milk was thought to be safer for babies than cow's milk; they were led from door to door and milked to order.

5) Oysters were cheap and eaten often; swans were served on special occasions.

6) At the grandest of dinner parties, a knife and fork were provided, but guests were expected to bring their own spoons.

7) Women wore ceruse, a compound of white lead, to whiten their complexions. It was a white paste that one diluted with water or egg white and applied with a damp cloth. Venetian ceruse was more prized than English because of it's higher lead content.

8) Cat dung mixed with vinegar was used as a depilatory.

9) Stealing was the most common crime. If the value of the goods stolen was more than 12 pence (about $6.50 in today's US dollars) theft was punishable by death.

10)  Teething was a major cause of infant death. A well-meaning adult would lance the gums with a fingernail or coin to ease the baby's pain, and infection would result.

There, aren't you glad you didn't live in the 17th century? Makes me wonder what things we do now that will be considered unthinkable four hundred years from now. Care to make any guesses?

Holly West

4 Comments

  1. WOW! That was all really interesting. I love learning stuff like that. I just got “Stiff” by Mary Roach and can’t wait to get started on it.
    I’m always a little freaked out by how in sync our interests seem to be, even though we live so far away from each other.

  2. Stiff is a good book–I really enjoyed it up until the last few chapters, which got boring for me.
    I love these little historical details too. Guess that’s why I’m writing a historical!

  3. I’ve read “Stiff”, too. Awesome book.
    I am always amazed at these little details. Those pre-1950 people were tough as nails. Especially the women!
    Donkey’s milk. That just sounds disgusting. But it’s weird that we drink cow’s milk, if you think about it. When vegans or someone go off on how cow’s milk is for baby cows and it’s disgusting that we drink it, it comes home and I think of past civilizations, like the Huns, who drank mare’s blood, without killing the horses. And what if instead of keeping the milk tradition from our ancestors, we picked up this weird blood-drinking thing. Then you could go to the store and pick up a gallon of mare’s blood, and no one would think anything about it.
    I think future generations will be appalled at the chemicals we put on and in our food. Fake sugars and fats, artificial colors and flavors. Pesticides. They’re causing problems that we can’t even see now (unless we look closely). Our descendants will be as freaked out as we are about DDT and agent orange.
    Cat dung and vinegar…wonder if it really works? 🙂

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