Sunday, June 29, 2008

Unknown No Longer

Meet Catherine ("kah-TRINE," in French), the main character of Book 2. I've adopted this portrait of an "unknown woman," sketched by court portraitist Jean Clouet (c.1485-1540), as her snapshot. I'm preparing posts on Clouet and his artist son François (c.1515-1572). These amazing artists, through several hundred chalk sketches and dozens of painted portraits, captured for posterity the nobles of the courts of four French kings. In the meantime, let me know what you think of Catherine. What does this portrait say to you of her character?

(The portrait comes from a book by Louis Dimier, Histoire de la peinture de portrait en France au XVIe siècle (Paris 1924), courtesy of my daughter, who taught me how to use the nifty scanner!)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Very Novel Announcement

Congratulations to Sheramy Bundrick, my writing friend and frequent commenter on this blog! Sheramy announced today that she has signed a contract with Avon A, the trade paperback imprint of HarperCollins, for The Sunflowers, her novel on Vincent Van Gogh. Here is how Sheramy describes her book:

The Sunflowers is the story of Rachel, the prostitute in Arles famous to history as the girl to whom Vincent gave a rather grisly gift the evening of 23 December 1888. Sources tell us little about her: who was she? How did Vincent know her? Was he only her customer, or was there something else? The story begins with their meeting in July 1888 and continues until August 1890, covering the last two years of Vincent's life and the period when he created some of his greatest paintings.

You can read the rest of Sheramy's post here. She is in the process of constructing an author website, but in the meantime, be sure to explore her excellent blog, Van Gogh's Chair.

Congratulations, Sheramy! I'm so happy for you and Vincent and Rachel. Can't wait to read the book!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Trendsetter's Daughter

Along with the trend of headless women covers, another trend--this one concerning titles--has overtaken historical fiction. Have you noticed the growing number of titles that follow the pattern "Somebody's Daughter"? To name only a few:

The Bonesetter's Daughter (A. Tan, 2003)
The Alchemist's Daughter (K. McMahon, 2006)
The Tailor's Daughter (J. Graham, 2007)
The Pirate's Daughter (M. Cezair-Thompson, 2008)
The Heretic's Daughter (K. Kent, 2008)
The Virgin Queen's Daughter (E. Chase, 2008)

The pattern may vary. Sometimes the parent's name appears, as in Rashi's Daughters (M. Anton, 2007); other times the syntax is reversed, as in Daughter of York (A.E. Smith, 2008) and Daughter of Fortune (I. Allende, 2006). What is it about Daughter titles that make them such a popular device for naming historical fiction? 

The first reason has to do with marketing. Like headless women covers, a Daughter title signals to the bookstore browser that the book is first of all women's fiction and most likely an historical novel. (Daughter titles do appear on books from other genres, such as the contemporary novel The Memory Keeper's Daughter (K. Edwards, 2006) and the memoir The Mistress's Daughter (A. Homes, 2008), but the majority of Daughter titles grace historical fiction.) The title announces that the main character of the novel is a woman and that the story is, to a great degree, hers. It is the story of her plight, of her struggle to define herself within, or escape from, her circumstances.

This is the second reason Daughter titles work so well for historical fiction. Women, in the past, were defined by their dependent roles as daughter and wife. In a sense, they had no need of first names, at least in a social context. Townsfolk could refer to "Frank the baker's wife" or "Otto the cobbler's daughter" and everyone knew whom they were talking about. Not only were the women defined by their familial roles, but the socio-economic position of their husband's or father's occupation delineated their existence. If you look carefully, the daughter in the titles above is the daughter of a practitioner of a specific trade or activity, be it alchemy, bonesetting, or heresy. Each trade comes with its particular status and set of duties and expectations. The daughter in question finds herself defined by the givens of her father's occupation and must either come to terms with these givens or seek to recreate herself by rebelling against them. (This dynamic works even when the parent in the title is the mother, as in The Heretic's Daughter and The Virgin Queen's Daughter: the nameless daughter here struggles under the double onus of social status and her mother's anonymity.) The use of the possessive case objectifies the daughter: she is a possession, an extension of the father, useful for her knowledge of the trade, a mere cog in the family business. Definitely not an individual in her own right--that development is what unfolds on the three hundred pages between the covers. 

Daughter titles, then, are significant markers of genre that, although static (they include no verb) set up the fundamental parameters of the book. Three simple words sketch the novel's principal character, primary setting and underlying conflict. Economy of scale at its best. They sound catchy, too.

Seeing the popularity of such titles, I used to jokingly refer to The Measure of Silence as The Draper's Daughter (my husband used to call it Death by Poem, but we won't go there). Ironically, one of the titles I'm considering for Book 2 has daughter in it. I found a quotation about art that captures the theme of the book perfectly; I'd love to feature it on the first page and borrow part of it as the title, but I'm hesitant to jump on the Daughter bandwagon. What do you think? I could always lop off a syllable or two to mirror the figure on the cover. 

Monday, June 23, 2008


All the book research has paid off. This weekend I identified the main character for Book 2. I wanted her to be the daughter or niece of an artist who worked for the French court; I was thinking I would have to invent such a person to encompass all the aspects I needed for the plot. Then Sunday I found reference to a prominent artist's daughter; her dates work perfectly for what I need. Even better, her brother is an artist, so I have the rivalry element I was looking for. The best is that little is known about her (as is true about most women of the time), so my imagination can have free reign (within the bounds of probability; I've blogged before about my ethical hesitations in fictionalizing persons from history). There's even a coincidence of names; her true name is one of the ones I was considering for a fictional character. It's all too good to be true...serendipity at its best.

So now I'm all set. Let the writing begin....

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Abounding Abundance

I apologize for the slow pace of my blogging lately. Excuses abound: the kids are home from school for the summer; the baby hardly ever naps anymore; I've been helping my eldest research colleges. The main reason, though, is that I've been caught up in research for my next book. I swear, I'm like a little kid at Christmas when books I've requested arrive through interlibrary loan. Of course I always request too many at once and then have to scramble to get through them all before the due date. You'd think I'd learn to pace myself and not request a new book until I've finished with the current one, but no. I have to have a pile eight books thick, all due within days of each other.

Right now I'm learning all I can about the construction of the fabulous Grande Galerie, now known as the Galerie François I, at the château of Fontainebleau. The Galerie--a long room decorated with frescoes, stuccoed ornaments, and woodwork--is considered the masterpiece of French mannerism. Begun about 1533 and completed by the end of 1539, the room features twelve large frescoes surrounded by exuberant stucco frames depicting putti, nymphs, garlands of fruit, grotesque masks, and emblems. The walls beneath the artwork and the ceiling are paneled with fine woodwork. Rosso Fiorentino, an Italian artist who came to work at the French court in the early 1530's after the sack of Rome, oversaw work on the Galerie. Teams of Italian, French, and Flemish artists specializing in the various media worked under his supervision; he headed the group of artists and humanist scholars who, aided by the king himself, designed and coordinated the iconographic content of the room as an expression of political ideology. The interplay between the frescoes, many of which depict obscure mythological stories, and the lavish stucco frames continues to intrigue cultural historians today. Intriguing for me is the fact that the gallery was part of the king's private chambers and accessible only by key and royal invitation. François would take honored guests on a tour, engaging them in learned discussion and impressing them with the room's secret splendor.

I'll have more to say about the Galerie in later posts, as it is the principal backdrop for my work-in-progress. For now, here are a few photographs to arouse your admiration and pique your curiosity: 

For anyone interested in pursuing the subject, Rebecca Zorach's Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance (U Chicago P 2005), is a fascinating interpretation of the luxurious abundance of the Galerie and of French Renaissance art in general.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Remedies and Recipes

Renaissance apothecaries compounded a vast array of medicines to treat the aches and pains early modern life. Monique Rossignol, in her book Medecine et medicaments au XVIe siècle à Lyon [Medicine and Medications in Sixteenth Century Lyon] (PUL 1990), describes four sorts of medicines popular during the Renaissance: those of human origin, derived from feces, urine, saliva, ear wax, and the like; those of animal origin, made from the milk, droppings, urine, fat, and body parts of beasts; vegetal medicines, compounded from herbs and other plants; and mineral medicines, fashioned from elemental matter. 

Medicines of human origin are probably the most repugnant to our contemporary sensibilities. Renaissance doctors and druggists relied heavily on human excrement, ingested as well as applied externally, for various cures. In this they followed the example of the doctors of antiquity, who prescribed a mixture of dried children's feces and honey for inflammation of the throat. But Renaissance doctors did not stop at excrement: they used a combination of mud and ear wax to cure migraine and applied saliva, preferably that of a "fasting young man" on dog bites and itchy rashes. Human blood was considered an excellent fortifier; weak patients were given blood to drink, while lepers soaked their limbs in tubs of blood. (I imagine with blood-letting being one of the most popular treatments for a variety of ailments, it wasn't difficult for apothecaries to provide the ingredients for these fortifying drinks.)

Medicines of animal origin were equally inventive. Dog turds were considered remarkable for treating pleurisy and colic; pig urine lowered fevers. Crow droppings dissolved in wine were good for dysentery; the chopped meat of geese and "well nourished kittens," roasted and distilled, cured jaundice. Ground unicorn horns from India and Ethiopia (!) were of great repute for treating plague, rabies and scorpion bites. Even in the sixteenth century, viper's venom was known to be a powerful antidote to the bites of poisonous animals and was used to combat the effects of poisonous plants. All parts of the viper, not only the venom, were used in various cures; the bodies were dried, then pulverized and mixed with wine and other ingredients.

The pharmacological properties of plants were well known to Renaissance healers. Apothecaries mixed innumerable aperitifs, digestifs, purges, and simples. Exotic herbs and spices from all over Africa and the Far East entered France through Lyon and found their way onto apothecaries' shelves. Tobacco was introduced into Europe by Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century and was consumed in many different forms: as oil, salt, syrup, perfume, water, leaves and powder. Smoking tobacco was considered useful for strengthening the memory, curing cataracts, and mitigating headaches and asthma. Tobacco oil was used on pimples; dropped in the ears it cured deafness. Tobacco salt whitened teeth; tobacco syrup arrested colds. Other plant products much used in medications included pepper, ginger, saffron, almonds, and fennel. Chewing on cloves relieved toothaches, a remedy Jollande's mother-in-law relies on in The Measure of Silence.

As for inorganic medications, soluble salts of gold, silver, sulfur and mercury were used as elixirs for long life. Copper was used for stomach ailments; iron dissolved in vinegar soothed ulcers. Mercury, mixed with butter, killed lice; it was mixed with vinegar and oil and drunk as a treatment for syphilis. Precious stones such as agate, emeralds, onyx and pearls were ground and swallowed as powders or mixed into sauces.

As you can see, the range of medications in the sixteenth century ran the gamut from useful and effective to outrageous and downright harmful. Apothecaries and doctors had their favorite cures which they prescribed based on their clinical experience. As the printing industry expanded, noted doctors and apothecaries began publishing books of their "recipes" for the benefit of others in the field. I'll leave you, as promised, with apothecary Jean Liébault's recipe for earthworm oil:

"Take a half measure of earthworms, wash them diligently in white wine, then cook them in two measures of olive oil and a bit of red wine, until the wine is consumed, then pour off and squeeze out the entirety and save the oil. It would be even better to put other worms in this oil and leave them there as long as the oil lasts. This oil is singular for comforting cold nerves and for joint pain." (quoted in Rossignol, p. 111; translation mine)

I think I'll stick with ibuprofen.

(All of the factual information in this post was taken from Chapter Six of Rossignol's informative book.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Of Oil and Earthworms

Yesterday evening, I tore a deep, two-inch-long gash in my elbow that required a trip to the emergency room and eight stitches to close. (I dove to save my three-year old from riding his bicycle off the curb; I saved him but lost my elbow in the process.) The doctor irrigated the wound a long time to remove all the gravel embedded in it; today the wound is red and puffy, even though I'm taking antibiotics. This entire episode got me thinking about medical practice in the sixteenth century. How would a contaminated wound like this have been treated in 1550?

I found a fascinating account in the memoirs of Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), royal surgeon to Henri II, Francois II, Charles IX and Henri III. Paré was a physician of great reknown and is credited with introducing the technique of using ligatures rather than cauterization for closing blood vessels during amputations. Educated on battlefields of Italy and Provence during Françcois I's numerous wars against Charles V, he became an expert on the treatment of wounds. He published two treatises on the treatment of wounds from firearms and arrows in 1545 and 1553. He was, however, unable to cure Henri II of the head wound, sustained in a tournament, which killed the king in 1559. Despite this failure, Paré remained in royal service, vivid testimony to his great skill. He became an expert in obstetrics, wrote anatomical treatises, and invented several surgical instruments.

In his memoir, Paré describes how he stumbled upon a novel way of treating gunshot wounds, which tended to become infected due to the embedding of gunpowder in the wound. It appears the traditional way of treating the wounds was to cauterize them with hot oil! Paré's account is so interesting I am going to transcribe it verbatim from an 1899 translation by Stephen Paget:

Now I was at this time a fresh-water soldier; I had not yet seen wounds made by gunshot at the first dressing. It is true I had read in John de Vigo, first book, Of Wounds in General, eighth chapter, that wounds made by firearms partake of venenosity, by reason of the powder; and for their cure he bids you cauterise them with oil of elders scalding hot, mixed with a little treacle. And to make no mistake, before I would use the said oil, knowing this was to bring great pain to the patient, I asked first before I applied it, what the other surgeons did for the first dressing; which was to put the said oil, boiling well, into the wounds with tents and setons; wherefore I took courage to do as they did. At last my oil ran short, and I was forced instead thereof to apply a digestive made of the yolks of eggs, oil of roses, and turpentine. In the night I could not sleep in quiet, fearing some default in not cauterising, that I should find the wounded to whom I had not used the said oil dead from the poison of their wounds; which made me rise very early to visit them, where beyond my expectation I found that those to whom I had applied my digestive medicament had but little pain, and their wounds without inflammation or swelling, having rested fairly well that night; the others, to whom the boiling oil was used, I found feverish, with great pain and swelling about the edges of their wounds. Then I resolved never more to burn thus cruelly poor men with gunshot wounds. (pages 33-34)

How lucky the soldier upon whom the oil ran out! The account gets even more interesting; Paré recounts how in Turin he managed to obtain from a renowned surgeon the secret recipe for a balm to treat gunshot wounds:

While I was at Turin, I found a surgeon famed above all others for his treatment of gunshot wounds; into whose favour I found means to insinuate myself, to have the recipe of his balm, as he called it, wherewith he dressed gunshot wounds. And he made me pay court to him for two years, before I could possibly draw the recipe from him. In the end, thanks to my gifts and presents, he gave it to me; which was to boil, in oil of lilies, young whelps just born, and earthworms prepared with Venetian turpentine. Then I was joyful, and my heart made glad, that I had understood his remedy, which was like that which I had obtained by chance. (pages 34-35)

A mixture of lily oil, dead puppies, earthworms and turpentine: it's a wonder patients did not die of the treatment alone! Reading this, I grew amazed at the human body's resiliency, and very grateful for the novocaine and antibiotics I had received. Even so, I realize we only benefit from these things due to the willingness of men like Ambroise Paré to experiment and push the frontiers of medical knowledge and to the bravery of their patients who would try anything to hang onto life.

Stay tuned: tomorrow I will share a recipe I came across in another book on how to prepare those earthworms Paré was talking about.

Juana La Loca

Elena Maria Vidal had an interesting post yesterday on Juana la Loca, sister of Catherine of Aragon and wife of Philip I of Castile, the first Hapsburg ruler of Spain. Elena Maria's post is a timely one, as historical novelist C.W. Gornter has a new novel on Juana, The Last Queen, coming out from Ballantine on July 29. I will be posting a review of The Last Queen and an interview with C.W. here closer to the publication date. In the meantime, you can check out C.W. Gortner's blog for some wonderful interviews with writers of historical fiction.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

G is for Griffarins

The first press in Lyon printed pages in 1473, establishing an industry that by the mid-1500's was critical to the city's economy. Over sixty printing shops were in operation around 1550; many of them--including those of Sébastien Gryphe, Jean de Tournes, and Barthélemy Honorat--were famous throughout France and all of Europe for the quality of the scholarship and craftsmanship that went into their editions. As Natalie Zemon Davis explains in her essay "Strikes and Salvation at Lyon" (see reference below; the factual content of this post is drawn heavily from Davis), the printing industry employed over 600 men of all social classes, from the great merchant-publishers, to the independent publisher-printers, to master craftsmen and printers' journeymen. All of these men were doing something different from their fathers, in a trade that was relatively new and without traditions.

The journeymen were those men who worked for wages as press operators, typesetters (compositors) and proofreaders. They came from all over France and even foreign countries, often traveling a circuit that allowed them to gain experience by working for several months or years in different cities. Pressmen on the whole were a cocky lot, proud their skills--two-thirds of them could read and write--and convinced that they labored in a trade that held great value for Christian society. Though they might be laborers, they considered themselves far above the city's tanners and masons and dockhands.

Life in a printing shop was a communal one. Three to four men worked a press, in conjunction with a typesetter and proofreader. The master was required by law to provide meals which they all ate together. Unmarried workers usually shared living quarters and often spent their scant free time together, drinking at taverns and roaming the streets. But this new industry had no guild to provide a cultural and monetary support structure for its workers. To compensate for this, and to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the publishers and master printers, who, in their eyes, conspired to ruin and destroy them with long hours, meager wages and inadequate food, the printers' journeymen formed a secular brotherhood called the Company of Griffarins.

The Griffarins was a secretive society with its own initiation rites and ceremonies. The name derives from the old French term for "glutton," an insult the master printers often threw at them, modified to include the word "griffe," or "claw," in order to emphasize the group's economic power. Though they were among the highest paid workers in Lyon, the pressmen banded together to pressure the publishers and master printers for better working conditions and higher pay. They organized strikes, work stoppages, and demonstrations, beat up apprentices whom masters put on their jobs, and made life miserable for pressmen who refused to join the company. Since they were valuable to the publishers for their skills and successful in intimidating the competition, the Griffarins were usually able to force their superiors to meet their demands.

By and large, the pressmen at mid-century were strong supporters of the reformed faith rapidly spreading throughout the city. There were, however, publishers and pressmen who remained faithful Catholics; for reasons Natalie Davis enumerates and which I will relate in a later post, the Griffarins eventually shied away from the strictures and oversight of the Protestant Consistories and returned to the Catholic fold. In my novel, I strive to depict the close companionship between the pressmen at the Sign of the Fountain and their distrust of the new compositor who suddenly appears in their midst. The Fountain's pressmen have no complaints against the shop's master, a devout Catholic, but they are readily suspected of supporting heresy by the city guard.

(Natalie Zemon Davis, "Strikes and Salvation at Lyon," in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford UP 1975), 1-16.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lyon's Musée des tissus

One of modern Lyon's main attractions is the Musée des tissus et des arts décoratifs, a museum devoted to textiles and the decorative arts. Housed in a mansion dating from 1730, the museum traces the history of both oriental and occidental textiles. It houses four permanent collections: Coptic Textiles and Tapestries, Eastern Textiles (Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman), Far-Eastern Textiles, and Western Textiles. The website describes this last collection as "A panorama of the history of European textiles, from Spain, Italy, England, Germany, France and notably Lyon, through woven and printed fabrics, ecclesiastical ornaments, embroideries, costumes, laces and trimmings." I visited the museum back in 1990 and remember it as a fascinating place.

The website is a bit confusing to navigate at first. When you first enter the url, a peach colored page with few words in French appears; click on the underlined sentence in gold. This will take you to the home page, where you can choose between the English and French versions of the site. Once you choose English, click on "Collections of the Textile Museum." On that page, if you click on one of the labels at the top below the title, you can view samples from the collection. Unfortunately, most of the European fabric samples are from the 17th and 18th centuries, although there are some older tapestries. If you click on "Costumes," you can view some beautiful court dresses and coats from the second half of the 18th century (perfect for readers of Catherine Delors's Mistress of the Revolution).

Of particular interest to students of the Renaissance is an exhibit which runs from April 11 to September 7, 2008 titled "From the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent: Italian textiles from the Renaissance." Unfortunately, the English page hasn't been updated to include this exhibit. The French page describes it as "The first installment of a long series to come consecrated to Italian textiles from the Renaissance, from the end of the 16th century to the 1640's. From Lucca to Florence, from Venice to Genoa, the Italian silk industry supplied all of Europe with silk and gold velvets, with rich damasks and sumptuous lampas." There are concerts and other events associated with the show. If you happen to be in Lyon over the summer, it would definitely be worth a visit. And don't forget to tell me all about it when you get back!

Although it doesn't pertain to the sixteenth century, here is an interesting fact I gleaned from the website: In 1770, Charles Germain de St. Aubin wrote in his book The Art of the Embroiderer that women embroiderers were well-paid and that Lyons was the most important embroidery centre in France, with more than 6000 women embroiderers in 1778. Is there the kernel of a story here? Be sure to read the history of the silk industry in Lyons as the website outlines it (under "Lyon," click on the first sample box, the one that features text rather than fabric). Founded in the 16th century, the industry remained extremely important to Lyon's economy well into the 1850's.

34 rue de la Charité F-69002 Lyon
Tél. + 33 (0)4 78 38 42 00
Open every day except Mondays and holidays from 10 am to 5:30 pm.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Why Write?

People often ask me why I write. I must admit that I'm not one of those writerly types who claim their lives are not complete unless they put pen to paper, who swear they must write every day or die. Not to disparage their need (in fact, I wish I shared it!), but I am completely unable to relate to it. I don't write because I couldn't not write; in fact (I suppose I shouldn't admit this) many days can pass before guilt drags me back to the computer. Writing is, usually, a very painful process for me. I agonize over every word, analyze every image, ponder every plot point; words never flow from my pen, but grind their way out like kidney stones. Writing is not an activity I'm particularly eager to undertake each morning.

Then why do I do it?

The easy answer is one that probably motivates many writers: I write because I read. I can't imagine not writing because I can't imagine not reading. I've read voraciously ever since I was a child; I loved reading so much I pursued it as a career and earned myself a doctorate in literature. I have enjoyed the works and imaginations of so many authors, I feel compelled, in a sense, to make my own contribution to the world of books. If just one reader gets caught up in my book, reads it eagerly and closes it with regret at the end, I will feel as though I have succeeded. Providing the thrill of good read for just one reader will make all the wincing and straining worthwhile.

The second reason I write? For the challenge. As a student of literature, I spent my time reading and dissecting books, taking them apart and discovering how they worked. That all changed the day my husband asked me, "Don't you get tired of talking about what other people wrote? Why don't you write the books other people talk about?" He threw down the gauntlet; how, as a good wife, could I not pick it up? {wink} His words were the impetus I needed to turn the niggling thought--"Could I do this, too?"--into a reality--"I did it!" And I have to say I found writing a novel much more difficult and infinitely more fulfilling than writing my dissertation. It was a thrill and a challenge to move from analyst to artist, to utilize what I'd learned to create a cohesive and (hopefully) engaging novel of my own. And the challenge has only intensified since I finished the first book. Now that I've written one novel,  I'll have to write an even better one. I'm sure that with each book I will find new ways to push myself, new heights to reach for. It's this desire to challenge myself, to create something out of nothing and do it as successfully as I can at this specific moment in time, that propels me to the desk each day. That, and the desire to show my husband what I can do!

So, if you are a writer, why do you write? I'd love to hear what motivates you. If you are a reader, do you ever think you'll try your hand at fiction?