Coming across a compilation of University of Oxford women’s exam papers from the 1870s and 80s was something of a treat for me. Having studied History and German at Oxford from 2011-2015, I was eager to find out how the exam papers from 130 years ago differed from those now. Imagine, then, my horror when I realised how many details of the examinations remained unchanged. Exams are still of the same duration (3 hours), they take place at the exact same time of year, and even at the exact same time of day (9:30-12:30, 14:30-17:30).
Worse still, some of the questions were eerily similar to those I answered on my own Finals papers. For instance, ‘Summarise Milton’s arguments against the censorship of the press. Which do you consider the most convincing, which the most rhetorically effective?’, and ‘Explain, by reference to this or any other of his prose writings, Milton’s idea of Liberty’ (funnily enough, I didn’t do especially well on that paper). However, I have to admit that the English to German translations in the 1884 paper are more difficult than those now, though there was no speaking exam as there is today.
In terms of difficulty of questions, they are something of a mixed bag. For the arts subjects there are rather a lot of factual questions alongside the argumentative essays which would be standard now. Questions such as the following are not uncommon: ‘Give the origin of the following suffixes’; ‘Write a short life of Pope Paul III; ‘What acquisitions of territory were made by France in 1643-1678?’ There are some very old-fashioned judgemental questions which particularly amused me, including the following from the English exam: ‘Are there (1) any signs of the immaturity of Shakespeare’s genius in Richard II; (2) any parts of Macbeth which seem so unworthy of Shakespeare as to justify a doubt as to their being genuine; (3) any traces of a failure of dramatic power in the Tempest?’.
Notwithstanding the shallowness of some of the questions, female students were expected to have a good grounding in all subjects, particularly for the First Examination (Prelims). For the first examination female candidates were expected to pass in English Composition, Arithmetic, Euclid, and any two of Latin, Greek, French, Italian or German. In the Second (Final) Examination for Honours candidates, women had more opportunity to specialise. They were required to sit exams in languages, as well as one of the following: ancient history; modern history; mathematics; physical science; logic and political economy (clearly the forerunner of PPE). Students could also offer themselves for examination in ‘Rudiments of Faith and Religion’, which basically meant comprehension questions on the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – no aethistic or methodistical material could be allowed to pollute the firmly C of E university precincts!
The introduction in the 1880s of the ability to specialise in subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology and geology reflects a wider trend in English universities. By the latter half of the 19th century, German universities had moved far ahead of their English counterparts in scientific research. Britain, as a Great Power, could not of course be left behind, so the traditional focus on theology, Classics, languages and history was widened to include the sciences. For a long time, however, sciences were not considered quite the thing; most upper-class students still read a traditional subject such as Classics.
I must reiterate that this was a set of exam papers for women; sadly, I haven’t been able to find a men’s examination paper from the period to compare. I do wonder whether the questions would have been more challenging. However, the prologue to the 1884 women’s paper claims that ‘the standard of attainment both for Pass and Honours is the same as that required in the corresponding [male] Public Examinations of the University’. It was even promised that the women’s results would be published in the University Gazette, alongside the men. It is perhaps unlikely that Oxford would wish to dilute its academic prestige by offering exams which were seen as easy, even if they were only for women.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of the most remarkable characters of the eighteenth century, yet she remains relatively unknown outside eighteenth century scholarship. This is certainly undeserved, as she was an influential courtier, a prolific writer, and the author of the entertaining Turkish Embassy Letters, in which she wrote of her experiences living in Istanbul in 1717. The letters reveal a woman who was highly intelligent, witty, and open-minded. Her fascinating portrayals of Turkish life remain fresh due to the striking absence of popular European stereotypes and a willingness to take Ottoman elite society on its own terms.
Born Lady Mary Pierrepont in 1689, Mary spent her childhood educating herself from her father’s extensive library at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire. She suffered under a governess whom she despised, but managed to teach herself Latin, and corresponded with the bishops Gilbert Burnet and Thomas Tenison, who supplemented her learning. Her literary talent showed itself early on; by the age of fourteen, she had written two albums filled with poetry, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modelled after Aphra Benn’s Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684).
By 1710, her father was looking around for a suitable match for Mary. She ended up with two serious suitors: Edward Wortley Montagu and the fantastically named Sir Clotworthy Skeffington. Mary’s father put pressure on her to accept Skeffington, but seemingly desperate to avoid this fate, she eloped with Wortley Montagu, despite the fact that she had apparently fallen in love with another man. Mary and her husband lived a secluded life in the countryside for a while. She gave birth to a son, also named Edward, and Wortley Montagu kept himself busy climbing the political ladder. Eventually he was made MP for Westminster and a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. To aid his career, the couple moved to London, where Mary’s wit and beauty enabled her to shine in the most distinguished social circles. Among her friends she could number the most celebrated men and women of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay, Mary Astell, Abbe Antonio Conti, and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, to name just a few.
Lady Mary is most famous for her Turkish Embassy Letters(published posthumously), and without them it seems unlikely that future generations would have remembered her at all. However, it was actually only by chance that Mary ended up accompanying her husband on his embassy to Istanbul. While she had been lying in bed with smallpox in 1715, someone had circulated her satirical court eclogues. These were taken to be an attack on Princess Caroline, and Mary was consequently disgraced. Following this, as she was unable to return to court, Mary accompanied her husband on an embassy to Turkey. The small family set out in 1716 and travelled a long and dangerous route across Europe, reaching Istanbul after seven months.
Although Mary initially chafed at the fact that, as a woman, she was not allowed to move in mixed-gender social circles in Istanbul, she soon learnt how to circumvent such conventions. She came to emphasise in her letters that she, as a woman, could visit places which male travellers were not permitted to enter, such as the imperial harem and womens’ bathhouses. She used the freedom the Turkish veils gave her – the drapery entirely concealed her identity – and explored the city’s markets and mosques, visiting the Bosphorus, the Seraglio and its gardens, even managing to observe the army’s military maneuvers. Learning Turkish meant that she could actively socialise with Turkish women, which was hardly common among European diplomats’ wives. As a result, Mary felt able to mock the travel writers who were ‘very fond of speaking of what they don’t know’, and scolded one correspondent for their letter being ‘full of mistakes from one end ‘t’other’, which came from reading old, inaccurate travel accounts of Turkey. Mary wrote:
‘Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removd from Truth and so full of Absurditys I am very well diverted with ’em. They never fail giving you an Account of the Women, which ’tis certain they never saw, and talking very wisely of the Genius of the Men, into whose Company they are never admitted, and very often describe Mosques, which they dare not peep into.
Mary was very interested in the position of women in the Ottoman Empire, frequently remarking upon it in her letters. She was impressed with what she observed of the status of (upper-class) Turkish women, finding the fact that women owned property in their own right particularly striking, given the situation of her female English contemporaries. She confided to her sister in April 1717:
Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their Husbands, those Ladys that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ’em upon a divorce with an addition which he is oblig’d to give ’em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire…’Tis true their Law permits [the men] four wives, but there is no Instance of a Man of Quality that makes use of this Liberty, or a woman of Rank that would suffer it.
She was keen to expose the common travellers’ myth which maintained that Turkish women spent all day engaged in amorous dalliances. She insisted that the female bathhouse, so often viewed by European men (who had never entered one) as a haven for sordid sexual practices, was merely ‘the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc’. Although the ladies were ‘in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked’, she found nothing improper about the scene, saying that ‘there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them’.
Mary recounts a particularly amusing incident in the bathhouse in which a group of Turkish women, horrified by the sight of the corset she was wearing, exclaimed that ‘the husbands in England were much worse than in the East, for [they] tied up their wives in little boxes, the shape of their bodies’. She could not, however, entirely avoid confirming some European prejudices when describing a dance performed by the maids of a high-ranking official’s wife, which she was invited to watch:
Nothing could be more artfull or more proper to raise certain Ideas, the Tunes so soft, the motions so Languishing, accompany’d with pauses and dying Eyes, half falling back and then recovering themselves in so artfull a Manner that I am very possitive the coldest and most rigid Prude upon Earth could not have look’d upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.
Yet notwithstanding her considerable rehabilitation of Turkish women from their dubious reputation in Europe, Mary was neither naive nor overly romantic about the situation of even upper-class women in Turkey. She recounts incidents of honour killings committed when a wife was found to be unfaithful, and describes the immense social stigma attached to women who could not conceive. She wrote that ‘in this country ’tis more despicable to be marry’d and not fruitfull, than ’tis with us to be fruitfull before Marriage’, and describes the ‘Quackerys’ which Turkish women resorted to in order to ‘avoid the Scandal of being past Child bearing’. Mary was herself pregnant while in Istanbul, and she quipped to Anne Thistlethwayte that although she was rather worried about her approaching confinement, she was ‘in some degree comforted by the glory that accrues to me from it’.
An embassy such as Wortley Montagu’s would generally last around twenty years, but due to a combination of national and international problems, and Wortley’s own incompetence, he was recalled prematurely in 1717. Upon the family’s return to England, Mary divided her time between the education of her children and producing a considerable literary output of letters, essays, poems and fairy tales. Having seen the benefits of smallpox inoculation as practiced in Turkey, she inoculated her own children and worked vigorously for the introduction of smallpox vaccination in England. After some initial success, the campaign faltered due to widespread distrust of the practice among the medical establishment. Meanwhile, she and Edward drifted apart, and in 1739 she left England, purportedly to travel, but in reality in order to meet a certain Count Algarotti. Though never formally dissolved, the marriage effectively ended at this point, and Mary lived abroad for most of the rest of her life, writing to her children and friends from Italy and France.
In January 1762, tired and ill, she returned to England, and people rushed to see ‘that extraordinary Phenomenon’ whose reputation had preceded her. Mary was suffering from the advanced stages of breast cancer and was living in somewhat straitened circumstances, but Horace Walpole told friends that she was still very lively. Her last months were spent in receiving friends and admirers, and she died in August 1762. Her letters from Turkey were published in May 1763 and met with immediate success. However, the publication was unauthorised, and Lady Bute, Mary’s daughter, was furious and concerned about the effect this publication might have on the family’s position. To avoid any further possibility of such scandal, Lady Bute burned all of her mother’s diaries, which stretched from her marriage to death. In doing so, Lady Bute robbed posterity of what would have been a fascinating collection of sources.
Stretching from the West End to the City, the coffee-houses of 17th and 18th century London formed the capital’s intellectual and social heartbeat. Coffee, a relatively new and exotic import, was only half the attraction: coffee-houses were forums for intellectual discussion, havens for dirty business deals and places where lords and sharpers won and lost enormous fortunes.
When coffee-houses first appeared in London in the mid-17th century they were largely indistinguishable from one another. However, as they faced ever-stiffer competition over time, each coffee-house developed its own character, playing host to diverse clienteles and catering to different needs. Some coffee-houses became so closely identified with specific groups or interests that Tatler, an early newspaper-journal, decided to group its stories under the names of coffee-houses. The first issue, in 1709, proclaimed that “all accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’ Coffee-house”.
There were many coffee-houses frequented by literary men, the first famous one being Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. John Dryden and his literary circle, known as the ‘Wits’, gathered there to discuss and review the latest plays and poems, and to read out their own work. As well as serious literary criticism, much amusement was to be had over the latest scurrilous pamphlets. Samuel Pepys records having heard a “very witty and pleasant discourse” at Will’s, though whether this was about weighty matters of allegory and hexameters, or gossip about Charles II’s latest mistress, he doesn’t say. After Dryden’s death, Will’s began to decline: in April 1709, Steele lamented in Tatler that “this place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have only now a Pack of Cards, and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game”.
With Will’s now falling out of fashion, the literary focus of London shifted to Button’s Coffee House, just up the street. This was frequented by the next generation of writers and satirists: Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift among others. Pope’s satirical poem “The Rape of the Lock” was based on coffee-house gossip he heard at Button’s. Addison was particularly influential in raising Button’s status as a literary meeting-place. He advertised it heavily in his newspaper The Guardian; ultimately, it earned its fame from the quirky letterbox which Addison had built next to the front door. It was in the shape of a lion’s head, inspired by those Addison had seen in Venice. The idea was that writers could deposit their writings in the lion’s mouth, and these would then get discussed in the coffee-house by leading literary men.
Other coffee-houses branched out from literature into learned fields such as arts and sciences. Quite a few scientific institutions which are still around today had their beginnings in coffee houses. The Grecian, for instance, was particularly associated with science as it was the preferred meeting place of the Royal Society, Britain’s pioneering scientific institution. You would go to the Grecian to hear lectures and witness novel experiments; on one memorable occasion, several scientists, including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, dissected a dolphin on the premises. The walls of Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse in Chelsea, a favourite haunt of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, were covered with stuffed animals which included rattlesnakes, turtles and crocodiles.
Trade and finance
The 18th century saw a great rise in trade and commerce in Britain, with the development of a consumer society and the expansion of global exchange networks. London’s coffee-houses were central to how business was done, as they were frequent meeting places for merchants and traders. The very first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s Coffee House, hard by the Royal Exchange. Some businesses even started operating out of coffee-houses. The most famous example is Lloyd’s Coffee House, which became the place to go for naval officers and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd’s continued as the focal point for all matters maritime for the best part of a century, and in 1771 a group of 79 underwriters (men who insured ships) formed the Society of Lloyd’s, now known as the famous insurance market, Lloyd’s of London.
Politics The streets around Westminster were also full of coffee-houses, frequented by politicians and observers interested in current affairs. Westminster coffee-houses, which were often divided up on party lines, functioned as political rumour-mills, making and breaking reputations. Richard Steele collected a lot of the political news for Tatler at these coffee-houses: “I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’ Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Roome, as one who comes there to hear and improve”.
Other coffee-houses had purely social functions, such as White’s Chocolate House. White’s was founded in 1693 by an Italian, Francis White. It was increasingly known as a haven for gentlemen gamblers of the highest rank and fashion. Jonathan Swift called White’s the “bane of half the English nobility”, referring to how aristocrats could gamble away their patrimony in a matter of minutes. It managed to outlive most of its coffee-house rivals by turning into a private member’s club, thus enabling it to keep the air of exclusivity which still remains today.
Some coffee-houses were altogether more quirky. At Moll King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden (an area notorious for brothels) you could flick through a directory of local prostitutes which listed their age, appearance, personality and area of expertise. At Lunt’s Coffee House in Clerkenwell Green the proprietor would cut your hair while you enjoyed your coffee. Hoxton Square Coffee House was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where suspected lunatics were tied up and wheeled into the room, awaiting the judgement of the patrons as to whether they should be locked up in an asylum. In an example of how not to be successful, William Hogarth’s father set up the Latin Coffee House in which the patrons were only allowed to speak Latin; perhaps this reminded people too much of dreary school-days spent declining Latin adjectives, as it was a miserable failure.
I have superimposed some of the most famous London coffee-houses, along with brief descriptions, onto a modern map of London. They only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of coffee-houses which London boasted in its 17th and 18th century heyday, but the map also includes coffee-houses I have not mentioned.
This is one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about the two fascists, Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley) here, and this post is about Jessica the communist, Nancy the novelist and Deborah the duchess.
Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as “abnormally detached”, and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy’s friends who came to stay, and would shout “don’t these people have homes to go to?” at the dinner table. According to Jessica, their father wouldn’t receive any “outsiders” as guests; that meant that “Huns”, “Frogs”, Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, “I should think the social services would be called in now”.
In the politically charged inter-war years, it was political beliefs as well as scandalous affairs and elopements (see Diana Mosley) which would tear the Mitford family apart. Jessica, or Decca, was the red sheep of the family. Eschewing the fascist sympathies of most of her family, Decca was an ardent Communist even as an adolescent. When forced to share a room with Unity, Decca plastered her side of the room with pictures of Lenin and the hammer and sickle, whereas Unity proudly displayed swastikas and photographs of Hitler. Decca despised the notion of entering the marriage market as a debutante, felt alienated from her family’s upper class milieu and resented her mother for forbidding her to attend school and university.
It was in this state of mind that she met Esmond Romilly at a weekend house party when she was 19 years old. Esmond was Winston Churchill’s nephew by marriage, and despite his young age had already published several books and been to Spain where he had fought with the International Brigade against Franco. He and Decca fell in love and eloped, hoping to go to Spain to continue work against Franco’s fascist regime. Their families were deeply disapproving and begged the two to come back to England. However, Decca became pregnant, and their families were forced to allow the couple to marry in order to avoid an even greater scandal.
Decca and Romilly moved back to England and lived for a while in the East End, but in 1939 they both moved to America where they travelled around working odd jobs, even running a bar in Florida at one point. Romilly, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the outset of World War II, went missing in action over the Atlantic on his way home from a bombing raid over Germany. Decca threw herself into war work and married Robert Treuhaft, a civil rights lawyer, in 1943. Both became active members of the Communist party and in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’, they were hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where they refused to testify about their participation in radical groups.
Decca spent the rest of her life working as an investigative journalist supporting the Civil Rights movement. She ended up quarrelling with most of her family on grounds of her elopement and opposing political views. Her father refused to see her ever again, even on his deathbed in 1958; he never got over the fact that her second husband was not only a Communist, but a Jew as well.
Several of the Mitford sisters were gifted with literary ability and were friends with authors such as Evelyn Waugh, but it was Nancy who turned her talent for fiction into a career. The novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, based on her own upbringing,established her literary reputation in the late 1940s. Although Nancy enjoyed professional success, she was persistently unlucky in love. She had a long on/off engagement with the Scottish aristocrat Hamish St Clair-Erskine, a homosexual Oxford undergraduate four years her junior, which ended in 1933 when he announced his intention to marry the daughter of a London banker. Nancy was distraught, and wrote to him saying, “I thought in your soul you loved me & that in the end we should have children & look back on life together when we are old”.
Yet just a month after her final split with Erskine, Nancy went on to make a very respectable match with the Hon. Peter Rodd, the son of a diplomat. Nancy’s friend Harold Acton described Rodd as “a young man of boundless promise”, but the cracks in their marriage started to show within a short time. Biographers have since blamed the couple’s unhappiness on money worries, along with Rodd’s infidelity and fecklessness. They both joined a French relief organisation in 1939 which assisted Spanish refugees from Franco’s regime in the last years of the civil war. The experience hardened Nancy against fascism to such an extent that she wrote, “I would join hands with the Devil himself to stop any further extension of the disease”. Nancy herself adhered to a moderate socialism, but was not so dedicated that she could not laugh at herself; she observed that “left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly”.
Rodd joined the Welsh Guards in 1940 and departed to fight for king and country. Nancy also contributed to the war effort by helping Jewish families in the East End during the Blitz. In 1942, Nancy met Colonel Gaston Palewski, Charles de Gaulle’s Chief of Staff, and had a brief but passionate affair with him. In 1946 she moved to Paris in order to be near Palewski, and plunged into a hectic social life with other British expatriates. She told her mother how much she loved France: “I am so completely happy here…I feel a totally different person as if I had come out of a coal mine into daylight…oh my passion for the French!”
Nancy managed to get a divorce from Rodd in 1958, but never married Palewski. Although he was the love of her life, the affair was somewhat one-sided; he did not return her intense passion, and in an unfortunate repeat of the Hamish Erskine affair, left her in order to marry a wealthy divorcee. Nancy lived in Paris for the rest of her days, writing fiction and historical biographies. In 1972 the French government made her a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, and later that year she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. At the time she was suffering greatly from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though she tried to keep her spirits up, writing “it’s very curious, dying, and would have many a drôle amusing & charming side were it not for the pain”. She died in 1973.
It certainly says something about this family that the second least famous daughter became the Duchess of Devonshire upon her marriage, an illustrious title dating back to the 17th century which had been held by Georgiana Cavendish, one of the celebrated personalities of the 18th century. Deborah, or ‘Debo’, ran Chatsworth House for decades, masterminding extensive restorations and developing various social and business activities based around the estate, such as the Chatsworth Farm Shop. She led an impeccably well-behaved aristocratic life and kept out of the fascist activities which made Diana and Unity so notorious. She did have tea with Hitler when visiting Munich with her mother and Unity in 1937; in an interview in 2007 she was asked who she would now like to have tea with, Elvis Presley or Hitler. Looking at the interviewer with astonishment, she answered, “Well, Elvis of course! What an extraordinary question”. Debo is the last surviving Mitford sister; aged 94, she spends her time involved in charitable endeavours and writing books on topics ranging from chickens to Chatsworth, including The Duchess of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Cookery Bookwhich is the ultimate guide to aristocratic country house fare.
Recently I came across two curious 1840s lithographs from the Library of Congress online image collection. Titled “Stages of Woman’s life from the cradle to the grave”, both lithographs portray the ideal trajectory of a woman’s life according to the prevailing European and North American social norms. The principal feminine virtues depicted are chastity, religion, philanthropy, wifely devotion and maternal love.
The first lithograph sets out a romanticised version of a woman’s life in which every stage has its own beauty and dignity. I have written out the accompanying text; poetry of dubious quality, which is otherwise rather hard to see at the bottom of the image.
A wailing infant, first she plays, Unconscious of her future days.
Her girlish pastimes reveal for show
The cares which woman’s life must know.
Her ripened beauty all confess
And wonder at her loveliness.
A husband’s arms, in hope and pride,
Enclasp her now, a lovely bride.
A mother’s anxious love and care
With toilful heart is hers to share.
Now to the poor her hands dispense The blessings of benevolence.
Absorbed in household duties now,
The weight of toil contracts her brow.
She now resigns all earthbound care
And lifts her soul to heaven in prayer.
At eighty years, her well-stored mind
Imparts its blessings to her kind.
The hoary head, us all should bless,
Who abound in ways of righteousness.
The body sinks and wastes away,
The spirit cannot know dismay.
The second lithograph is of a very similar design and espouses the same sentiments about childhood, marriage and motherhood, but, interestingly, it’s noticeably more pessimistic about the fate of older women.
In swaddling clothes behold the bud,
Of sweet and gentle womanhood.
Next she foreshews with mimic plays,
The business of her future days.
Now glorious as a full-blown flower;
The heart of manhood feels her power.
A husband now her arms entwine,
She clings around him like the vine.
Now bearing fruit she rears her boys
And tastes a mother’s pain and joys.
Like sparkling fountain gushing forth,
She proves a blessing to the earth.
A busy housewife full of cares,
The daily food her hand prepares.
As age creeps on she seeks for grace,
Always to church and in her place.
Now second childhood loosens all her tongue,
She talks of love and prattles with the young.
A useless cumberer on the Earth,
From house to house they send her forth.
Chained to her chair by weight of years,
She listless knits till death appears.
It’s unsettling to see life mapped out in this apparently simple way. The lithographs seem to say: this is exactly how a woman’s life should proceed, and any deviation is a sign of abnormality. Of course, we know that huge numbers of women did not fit into this neat pattern, whether by choice or necessity. Many never married, and some of those who did remained childless. By no means was every middle-aged Victorian woman busily engaged in philanthropic activity, as is suggested; the lithograph only portrays well-off middle class ladies.
The myth that all old women were exceedingly pious is also undermined by the unrepentant old ladies we know from diaries and literature, who blasphemed and drank gin until their dying day. That’s not to mention all those who never reached a particular life stage because of the dire mortality statistics for women during the Industrial Revolution.
Pissabed; mare’s fart; dead man’s fingers. These are just three of the hundreds of traditional English plant names which, once ubiquitous but now little-known, have been replaced by the much more prosaic taraxacum, jacobaea vulgaris and xylaria polymorpha. A victory for scientific categorisation, perhaps, but arguably a sad loss of colourful English folklore. Before the professional standardisation of botanical terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries, England was full of such plant names, boasting a huge regional diversity. Some, such as Old Man’s Beard, are still in widespread use, but many are not, and it is the Latin terms which are largely used in scientific circles. Yet these names are colourful and humorous and curious, and deserve to be remembered.
Medieval and early modern plant names had strong visual, emotional and human connotations, fitting well into popular cosmology and reflecting the dominant anthropocentric worldview. Many were influenced by religion. Christ’s tears, Star of Bethlehem, Jew’s ear, Solomon’s seal, Jacob’s ladder and St John’s Wort are just a few examples. The centrality of Marian devotions to popular medieval Catholicism meant that plenty of plants were named after the Virgin Mary. Conversely, there were over fifty supposedly ugly or unpleasant plants whose names began with ‘Devil-‘. Religious plant names, particularly those alluding to saints or the Virgin, were particularly distasteful to Puritans, so they tended to be discouraged from the 16th century onwards.
More names which came to be disapproved of were the coarse ones referring to sexual and other bodily functions. 17th century England was a forthright place, so it’s perhaps no surprise that in the countryside you could find shitabed, naked ladies, black maidenhair, Stinking Willy (named for its foul smell) and even priest’s ballocks [sic]. A herb garden commonly included horse pistle and prick madam, while in the orchard, the open-arse (or common medlar) was a popular fruit. ‘Open arse’ of course left itself vulnerable to all sorts of puns and jokes which Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists didn’t fail to take advantage of. In Act II Scene I of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio uses the image to tease Romeo about his unrequited love for Rosaline:
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!
I doubt that a gently-bred aristocratic lady would have asked for an ‘open-arse’ at table, but such a term would have been widespread among less exalted folk, both men and women. However, altered sensibilities in the 18th and 19th centuries were disgusted by these coarse names, so they were abandoned or changed, at least among the educated classes. For instance, ‘lords and ladies’ is no ancient name, but a fanciful Victorian invention. Seeing the plant (below left), it’s not very hard to imagine what sort of name it was given before its bowdlerisation.
Other plant names were based on supposed similarities to parts of animals: cat’s tail, goat’s beard, hound’s tongue, cranesbill, coltsfoot, bearfoot, bird’s eyes. Some referred to the smell: hound’s piss, stinking arrach; and some plants were named for their edibility: poor man’s pepper, sauce alone, hedge mustard, fat hen. Plants which supposedly looked like parts of the human body included miller’s thumb, old man’s beard, maidenhair and dead man’s fingers, and items of clothing were also represented in bachelor’s buttons, shepherd’s purse, fool’s cap and ladies’ slippers. In the medieval and early modern periods, much popular medicine relied on herbal lore, so some plant names alluded to their supposed medicinal properties: navelwort, lungwort and feverfew, for example.
Much terminology was simply poetic or humorous without any obvious practical meaning. For instance: thrift, goodnight at noon, patience, son-before-the-father (because the blossom came before the leaves), love-in-idleness, honesty, courtship and matrimony (alluding to the deterioration in the scent after the flower was picked), and the wonderfully named welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk. One contemporary accused women of making up these silly terms, saying that “our London gentlewomen have named [swallow wort] Silken Cisley…our women have named [oxlips] jack-an-apes-on-horseback”.
To complicate matters still further, there was rarely one vernacular name for a plant. There could be so many regional variations that the frustration of professional botanists perhaps becomes more understandable. Herbals (popular books containing drawings and descriptions of plants) tell us that ladies’ bedstraw (galium verum) was also known as cheese rennet, gallion, pettimugget, maid’s hair and wild rosemary. Ground ivy was variously referred to as tun hoof, haymaids, catsfoot, alehood, Gill go by the ground and Gill creep by the ground. Mulleyn (candelaria) was called Jupiter’s staff, woollens, hare’s beard, high-taper, hagtaper or bullock’s lungwort depending upon where you were. The Tudor surgeon and botanist John Gerard wrote of treacle mustard (erysimum cheiranthoides), “we call this herb in English penny flower or money flower, silver plate, pricksongwort; in Norfolk [it is called] sattin and white sattin and among our women it is called honesty”. It really was a minefield for anyone seeking to bring some order to plant terminology.
There’s an interesting point to be made beyond the quaintness of these old names. The change to Latin terminology was a sign of the onward march of science, and it signalled the end of the anthropocentric worldview which was previously dominant in Europe. Latin names turned plants into neutral objects more fit for study, whereas the old vernacular terms tied the natural world closely to humans; plants were given personal names, were named after human characteristics and referred to by their usefulness in medicine or other tasks. By the 18th century it was no longer acceptable for professional naturalists to use the old vernacular terms. “Those who wish to remain ignorant of the Latin language”, said John Berkenhout in 1789, “have no business with the study of botany”. Vulgar names were an obstacle to science. In the nineteenth century there was a brief, sentimental attempt by John Ruskin and others to revive or invent English plant names, but by that time the learned world had permanently discarded the language of ordinary discourse.
——————- Further Reading
Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (1991)
In my last post, on English and North American death records from 1647 to the present, I briefly mentioned how the development of the industrial city in 19th century Europe and North America changed patterns of disease and mortality. The dreadful overcrowding in the slums, together with a lack of adequate water supply, particularly encouraged contagious diseases such as cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, diptheria and typhoid fever. Slum districts were periodically ravaged by epidemics. The wealthy were of course also subject to epidemics, but they were probably in less danger as they lived in more sanitary conditions, had access to doctors and enjoyed a better diet.
As the 19th century wore on, more attention was drawn to the living conditions of the urban poor. The Victorian age saw an astonishing outpouring of philanthropic activity alongside the rise of political and social reform movements. In England, social reformers such as Henry Mayhew set about documenting poverty in an effort to bring the plight of the metropolitan poor to the public’s attention. In literature, Charles Dickens often portrayed the struggles of the urban underclass, most famously in Oliver Twist with its depictions of grim workhouses, child labour and London’s criminal underbelly.
One of the most infamous slums in London was Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey. The area was notoriously squalid and was described as “the very capital of cholera” by the Morning Chroniclein 1849. Both Mayhew and Dickens visited Jacob’s Island and were appalled by what they saw. Dickens was taken there by the Thames Police, with whom he would occasionally go on patrol. This gave him the inspiration for the ending of Oliver Twist; the principal villain, Bill Sykes, meets his death there in the stinking mud. Dickens describes Jacob’s Island in evocative terms:
“Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be so tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island”.
Henry Mayhew also described Jacob’s Island in a letter to the Morning Chronicle in 1848. Whilst perhaps less poetic than Dickens, Mayhew is more exact in his description, with a focus on the scientific aspects of the problem:
“On entering the precincts of the pest island the air had literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness came over anyone unaccustomed to imbibe the moist atmosphere. Not only the nose, but the stomach told how heavily the air was loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you crossed one of the crazy and rotten bridges over the ditch, you knew, as surely as if you had chemically tested it, by the black colour of what was once white lead paint upon the door posts and window sills, that the air was thickly charged with this deadly gas.
“The heavy bubbles which now and then rose up in the water showed you whence at least a portion of the metaphitic compound issued, while the open doorless privies that hung over the water-side, and the dark streaks of filth down the walls, where the drains from each houses discharged themselves into the ditch, were proofs indisputable as to how the pollution of the ditch occurred.
“The water was covered with scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it floated large masses of rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges were swollen carcasses of dead animals, ready to burst with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores were heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which told you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster-shells were like pieces of slate from their coating of filth and mud. In some parts the fluid was as red as blood from the colouring matter that poured into it from the reeking leather-dressers’ close by”.
Although the authorities were at first reluctant to do anything about Jacob’s Island – a policeman once tried to deny the very existence of the place when questioned by Dickens – by the early 1850s the ditches were filled and the area redeveloped as warehouses. Jacob’s Island was heavily bombed in World War Two and has undergone such considerable regeneration in recent decades that it is almost impossible, looking at it today, to imagine what a centre of pestilence and poverty it once was.