Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Anecdotes of European Manners.

The following circumstances probably gave rise to the tyranny of the feudal power, and are the facts on which the fictions of romance are raised. Castles were erected to repulse the vagrant attacks of the Normans; and in France, from the year 768 to 987, these places disturbed the public repose. The petty despots who raised these castles pillaged whoever passed, and carried off the females who pleased them. Rapine, of every kind were the privileges of the feudal lords! Mezeray observes, that it is from these circumstances romancers have invented their tales of knights errant, monsters, and giants.

De Saint Foix, in his “Historical Essays,” informs us that “women and girls were not in greater security when they passed by abbeys. The monks sustained an assault rather than relinquish their prey: if they saw themselves losing ground, they brought to their walls the relics of some saint. Then it generally happened that the assailants, seized with awful veneration, retired, and dared not pursue their vengeance. This is the origin of the enchanters, of the enchantments, and of the enchanted castles described in romances.”

To these may be added what the author of “Northern Antiquities,” Vol. I. p. 243, writes, that as the walls of the castles ran winding round them, they often called them by a name which signified serpents or dragons; and in these were commonly secured the women and young maids of distinction, who were seldom safe at a time when so many bold warriors were rambling up and down in search of adventures. It was this custom which gave occasion to ancient romancers, who knew not how to describe anything simply, to invent so many fables concerning princesses of great beauty guarded by dragons.

A singular and barbarous custom prevailed during this period; it consisted in punishments by mutilations. It became so general that the abbots, instead of bestowing canonical penalties on their monks, obliged them to cut off an ear, an arm, or a leg!

Velly, in his History of France, has described two festivals, which give a just idea of the manners and devotion of a later period, 1230, which like the ancient mysteries consisted of a mixture of farce and piety: religion in fact was their amusement! The following one existed even to the Reformation:—

In the church of Paris, and in several other cathedrals of the kingdom, was held the Feast of Fools or madmen. “The priests and clerks assembled elected a pope, an archbishop, or a bishop, conducted them in great pomp to the church, which they entered dancing, masked, and dressed in the apparel of women, animals, and merry-andrews; sung infamous songs, and converted the altar into a beaufet, where they ate and drank during the celebration of the holy mysteries; played with dice; burned, instead of incense, the leather of their old sandals; ran about, and leaped from seat to seat, with all the indecent postures with which the merry-andrews know how to amuse the populace.”

The other does not yield in extravagance. “This festival was called the Feast of Asses, and was celebrated at Beauvais. They chose a young woman, the handsomest in the town; they made her ride on an ass richly harnessed, and placed in her arms a pretty infant.1 In this state, followed by the bishop and clergy, she marched in procession from the cathedral to the church of St. Stephen’s; entered into the sanctuary; placed herself near the altar, and the mass began; whatever the choir sung was terminated by this charming burthen, Hihan, hihan! Their prose, half Latin and half French, explained the fine qualities of the animal. Every strophe finished by this delightful invitation:—

Hez, sire Ane, ça chantez,

Belle bouche rechignez,

Vous aurés du foin assez,

Et de l’avoine si plantez.

They at length exhorted him, in making a devout genuflexion, to forget his ancient food, for the purpose of repeating without ceasing, Amen, Amen. The priest, instead of Ite missa est, sung three times, Hihan, hihan, hihan! and the people three times answered, Hihan, hihan, hihan! to imitate the braying of that grave animal.2

What shall we think of this imbecile mixture of superstition and farce? This ass was perhaps typical of the ass which Jesus rode! The children of Israel worshipped a golden ass, and Balaam made another speak. How fortunate then was James Naylor, who desirous of entering Bristol on an ass, Hume informs us — it is indeed but a piece of cold pleasantry — that all Bristol could not afford him one!

At the time when all these follies were practised, they would not suffer men to play at chess! Velly says, “A statute of Eudes de Sully prohibits clergymen not only from playing at chess, but even from having a chess-board in their house.” Who could believe, that while half the ceremonies of religion consisted in the grossest buffoonery, a prince preferred death rather than cure himself by a remedy which offended his chastity! Louis VIII. being dangerously ill, the physicians consulted, and agreed to place near the monarch while he slept a young and beautiful lady, who, when he awoke, should inform him of the motive which had conducted her to him. Louis answered, “No, my girl, I prefer dying rather than to save my life by a mortal sin!” And, in fact, the good king died! He would not be prescribed for out of the whole Pharmacopoeia of Love!

An account of our taste in female beauty is given, by Mr. Ellis, who observes, in his notes to Way’s Fabliaux, “In the times of chivalry the minstrels dwelt with great complacency on the fair hair and delicate complexion of their damsels. This taste was continued for a long time, and to render the hair light was a great object of education. Even when wig first came into fashion they were all flaxen. Such was the colour of the Gauls and of their German conquerors. It required some centuries to reconcile their eyes to the swarthy beauties of their Spanish and their Italian neighbours.”3

The following is an amusing anecdote of the difficulty in which an honest Vicar of Bray found himself in those contentious times.

When the court of Rome, under the pontificates of Gregory IX. and Innocent IV., set no bounds to their ambitious projects, they were opposed by the Emperor Frederick; who was of course anathematised. A curate of Paris, a humorous fellow, got up in his pulpit with the bull of Innocent in his hand. “You know, my brethren (said he), that I am ordered to proclaim an excommunication against Frederick. I am ignorant of the motive. All that I know is, that there exist, between this Prince and the Roman Pontiff great differences, and an irreconcileable hatred. God only knows which of the two is wrong. Therefore with all my power I excommunicate him who injures the other; and I absolve him who suffers, to the great scandal of all Christianity.”

The following anecdotes relate to a period which is sufficiently remote to excite curiosity; yet not so distant as to weaken the interest we feel in those minutiæ of the times.

The present one may serve as a curious specimen of the despotism and simplicity of an age not literary, in discovering the author of a libel. It took place in the reign of Henry VIII. A great jealousy subsisted between the Londoners and those foreigners who traded here. The foreigners probably (observes Mr. Lodge, in his Illustrations of English History) worked cheaper and were more industrious.

There was a libel affixed on St. Paul’s door, which reflected on Henry VIII. and these foreigners, who were accused of buying up the wool with the king’s money, to the undoing of Englishmen. This tended to inflame the minds of the people. The method adopted to discover the writer of the libel must excite a smile in the present day, while it shows the state in which knowledge must have been in this country. The plan adopted was this: In every ward one of the King’s council, with an alderman of the same, was commanded to see every man write that could, and further took every man’s book and sealed them, and brought them to Guildhall to confront them with the original. So that if of this number many wrote alike, the judges must have been much puzzled to fix on the criminal.

Our hours of refection are singularly changed in little more than two centuries. In the reign of Francis I. (observes the author of Récréations Historiques) they were accustomed to say —

Lever à cinq, dîner à neuf,

Souper à cinq, coucher à neuf,

Fait vivre d’ans nonante et neuf.

Historians observe of Louis XII. that one of the causes which contributed to hasten his death was the entire change of his regimen. The good king, by the persuasion of his wife, says the history of Bayard, changed his manner of living: when he was accustomed to dine at eight o’clock, he agreed to dine at twelve; and when he was used to retire at six o’clock in the evening, he frequently sat up as late as midnight.

Houssaie gives the following authentic notice drawn from the registers of the court, which presents a curious account of domestic life in the fifteenth century. Of the dauphin Louis, son of Charles VI., who died at the age of twenty, we are told, “that he knew the Latin and French languages; that he had many musicians in his chapel; passed the night in vigils; dined at three in the afternoon, supped at midnight, went to bed at the break of day, and thus was ascertené (that is threatened) with a short life.” Froissart mentions waiting upon the Duke of Lancaster at five o’clock in the afternoon, when he had supped.

The custom of dining at nine in the morning relaxed greatly under Francis I., successor of Louis XII. However, persons of quality dined then the latest at ten; and supper was at five or six in the evening. We may observe this in the preface to the Heptameron of the Queen of Navarre, where this princess, describing the mode of life which the lords and ladies whom she assembles at the castle of Madame Oysille, should follow, to be agreeably occupied and to banish languor, thus expresses herself: “As soon as the morning rose, they went to the chamber of Madame Oysille, whom they found already at her prayers; and when they had heard during a good hour her lecture, and then the mass, they went to dine at ten o’clock; and afterwards each privately retired to his room, but did not fail at noon to meet in the meadow.” Speaking of the end of the first day (which was in September) the same lady Oysille says, “Say where is the sun? and hear the bell of the abbey, which has for some time called us to vespers; in saying this they all rose and went to the religionists who had waited for them above an hour. Vespers heard, they went to supper, and after having played a thousand sports in the meadow they retired to bed.” All this exactly corresponds with the lines above quoted. Charles V. of France, however, who lived near two centuries before Francis, dined at ten, supped at seven, and all the court was in bed by nine o’clock. They sounded the curfew, which bell warned them to cover their fire, at six in the winter, and between eight and nine in the summer. Under the reign of Henry IV. the hour of dinner at court was eleven, or at noon the latest; a custom which prevailed even in the early part of the reign of Louis XIV. In the provinces distant from Paris, it is very common to dine at nine; they make a second repast about two o’clock, sup at five; and their last meal is made just before they retire to bed. The labourers and peasants in France have preserved this custom, and make three meals; one at nine, another at three, and the last at the setting of the sun.

The Marquis of Mirabeau, in “L’Ami des Hommes,” Vol. I. p. 261, gives a striking representation of the singular industry of the French citizens of that age. He had learnt from several ancient citizens of Paris, that if in their youth a workman did not work two hours by candle-light, either in the morning or evening, he even adds in the longest days, he would have been noticed as an idler, and would not have found persons to employ him. On the 12th of May, 1588, when Henry III. ordered his troops to occupy various posts at Paris, Davila writes that the inhabitants, warned by the noise of the drums, began to shut their doors and shops, which, according to the customs of that town to work before daybreak, were already opened. This must have been, taking it at the latest, about four in the morning. “In 1750,” adds the ingenious writer, “I walked on that day through Paris at full six in the morning; I passed through the most busy and populous part of the city, and I only saw open some stalls of the vendors of brandy!”

To the article, “Anecdotes of Fashions,” (see Vol. I., p. 216) we may add, that in England a taste for splendid dress existed in the reign of Henry VII.; as is observable by the following description of Nicholas Lord Vaux. “In the 17th of that reign, at the marriage of Prince Arthur, the brave young Vaux appeared in a gown of purple velvet, adorned with pieces of gold so thick, and massive, that, exclusive of the silk and furs, it was valued at a thousand pounds. About his neck he wore a collar of SS, weighing eight hundred pounds in nobles. In those days it not only required great bodily strength to support the weight of their cumbersome armour; their very luxury of apparel for the drawing-room would oppress a system of modern muscles.”

In the following reign, according to the monarch’s and Wolsey’s magnificent taste, their dress was, perhaps, more generally sumptuous. We then find the following rich ornaments in vogue. Shirts and shifts were embroidered with gold, and bordered with lace. Strutt notices also perfumed gloves lined with white velvet, and splendidly worked with embroidery and gold buttons. Not only gloves, but various other parts of their habits, were perfumed; shoes were made of Spanish perfumed skins.

Carriages were not then used;4 so that lords would carry princesses on a pillion behind them, and in wet weather the ladies covered their heads with hoods of oil-cloth: a custom that has been generally continued to the middle of the seventeenth century. Coaches were introduced into England by Fitzalan Earl of Arundel, in 1580, and at first were only drawn by a pair of horses. The favourite Buckingham, about 1619, began to have them drawn by six horses; and Wilson, in his life of James I., tells us this “was wondered at as a novelty, and imputed to him as a mastering pride.” The same arbiter elegantiarum introduced sedan-chairs. In France, Catherine of Medicis was the first who used a coach, which had leathern doors and curtains, instead of glass windows. If the carriage of Henry IV. had had glass windows, this circumstance might have saved his life. Carriages were so rare in the reign of this monarch, that in a letter to his minister Sully, he notices that having taken medicine that day, though he intended to have called on him, he was prevented because the queen had gone out with the carriage. Even as late as in the reign of Louis XIV. the courtiers rode on horseback to their dinner parties, and wore their light boots and spurs. Count Hamilton describes his boots of white Spanish leather, with gold spurs.

Saint Foix observes, that in 1658 there were only 310 coaches in Paris, and in 1758 there were more than 14,000.

Strutt has judiciously observed, that though “luxury and grandeur were so much affected, and appearances of state and splendour carried to such lengths, we may conclude that their household furniture and domestic necessaries were also carefully attended to; on passing through their houses, we may expect to be surprised at the neatness, elegance, and superb appearance of each room, and the suitableness of every ornament; but herein we may be deceived. The taste of elegance amongst our ancestors was very different from the present, and however we may find them extravagant in their apparel, excessive in their banquets, and expensive in their trains of attendants; yet, follow them home, and within their houses you shall find their furniture is plain and homely; no great choice, but what was useful, rather than any for ornament or show.”

Erasmus, as quoted by Jortin, confirms this account, and makes it worse; he gives a curious account of English dirtiness; he ascribes the plague, from which England was hardly ever free, and the sweating-sickness, partly to the incommodious form, and bad exposition of the houses, to the filthiness of the streets, and to the sluttishness within doors. “The floors,” says he, “are commonly of clay, strewed with rushes; under which lies, unmolested, an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats, and everything that is nasty.”5 And NOW, certainly we are the cleanest nation in Europe, and the word COMFORTABLE expresses so peculiar an idea, that it has been adopted by foreigners to describe a sensation experienced nowhere but in England.

I shall give a sketch of the domestic life of a nobleman in the reign of Charles the First, from the “Life of the Duke of Newcastle,” written by his Duchess, whom I have already noticed. It might have been impertinent at the time of its publication; it will now please those who are curious about English manners.

Of his Habit.

“He accoutres his person according to the fashion, if it be one that is not troublesome and uneasy for men of heroic exercises and actions. He is neat and cleanly; which makes him to be somewhat long in dressing, though not so long as many effeminate persons are. He shifts ordinarily once a day, and every time when he uses exercise, or his temper is more hot than ordinary.

Of his Diet.

“In his diet he is so sparing and temperate, that he never eats nor drinks beyond his set proportion, so as to satisfy only his natural appetite; he makes but one meal a day, at which he drinks two good glasses of small beer, one about the beginning, the other at the end thereof, and a little glass of sack in the middle of his dinner; which glass of sack he also uses in the morning for his breakfast, with a morsel of bread. His supper consists of an egg and a draught of small beer. And by this temperance he finds himself very healthful, and may yet live many years, he being now of the age of seventy-three.

His Recreation and Exercise.

“His prime pastime and recreation hath always been the exercise of mannage and weapons, which heroic arts he used to practise every day; but I observing that when he had overheated himself he would be apt to take cold, prevailed so far, that at last he left the frequent use of the mannage, using nevertheless still the exercise of weapons; and though he doth not ride himself so frequently as he hath done, yet he taketh delight in seeing his horses of mannage rid by his escuyers, whom he instructs in that art for his own pleasure. But in the art of weapons (in which he has a method beyond all that ever was famous in it, found out by his own ingenuity and practice) he never taught any body but the now Duke of Buckingham, whose guardian he hath been, and his own two sons. The rest of his time he spends in music, poetry, architecture, and the like.”

The value of money, and the increase of our opulence, might form, says Johnson, a curious subject of research. In the reign of Edward the Sixth, Latimer mentions it as a proof of his father’s prosperity, that though but a yeoman, he gave his daughters five pounds each for their portion.6 At the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign, seven hundred pounds were such a temptation to courtship, as made all other motives suspected. Congreve makes twelve thousand pounds more than a counterbalance to the affection of Belinda. No poet will now fly his favourite character at less than fifty thousand. Clarissa Harlowe had but a moderate fortune.

In Sir John Vanbrugh’s Confederacy, a woman of fashion is presented with a bill of millinery as long as herself. — Yet it only amounts to a poor fifty pounds! at present this sounds oddly on the stage. I have heard of a lady of quality and fashion who had a bill of her fancy dressmaker, for the expenditure of one year, to the tune of, or rather, which closed in the deep diapason of, six thousand pounds!

1 This was, in fact, a realization of the traditional representations of the Flight into Egypt, in which the Virgin, having the Saviour in her lap, is always depicted seated on an ass, which is led by Joseph.

2 See Article Ancient and Modern Saturnalia, in this Volume.

3 In the romances and poems of the Middle Ages, the heroines are generally praised for the abundance and beauty of their “yellow hair”—

Her yellow haire was braided in a tresse

Behinde her backe, a yarde longe, I guesse.

CHAUCER’S Knight’s Tale.

Queen Elizabeth had yellow hair, hence it became the fashion at her court, and ladies dyed their hair of the Royal colour. But this dyeing the hair yellow may be traced to the classic era. Galen tells us that in his time women suffered much from headaches, contracted by standing bare-headed in the sun to obtain this coveted tint, which others attempted by the use of saffron. Bulwer, in his “Artificiall Changeling,” 1653, says —“The Venetian women at this day, and the Paduan, and those of Verona, and other parts of Italy, practice the same vanitie, and receive the same recompense for their affectation, there being in all those cities open and manifest examples of those who have undergone a kind of martyrdome, to render their haire yellow.”

4 That is, carriages of the modern form, and such as became common toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign; but waggons and chares, covered with tapestry, and used by ladies for journeys, may be seen in illuminated MSS. of the fourteenth century. There is a fine example in the Loutterell Psalter, published in “Vetusta Monumenta.”

5 The use of censers or firepans to “sweeten” houses by burning coarse perfumes is noted by Shakespeare. His commentator, Steevens, points out a passage in a letter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who when keeping Mary Queen of Scots under his surveillance, notes “That her Majesty was to be removed for 5 or 6 dayes to clense her chamber, being kept very unclenly.” That annoyances of a very disagreeable kind were constantly felt, he instances in a passage from the Memoir of Anne, Countess of Dorset, who relates that a noble party were infested with insects not now to be named, though named plainly by the lady, and all this “by sitting in Sir Thomas Erskine’s chamber.”

6 He gives this piece of autobiography in his first sermon preached before Edward VI., 1549:—“My father was a yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of three or foure pound by year at the uttermost, and hereupon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had a walk for a hundred sheep, and my mother milked thirty kine. He kept me to school. He married my sisters with five pound, or twenty nobles a piece; so that he brought them up in godliness.”

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