‘This useful invention’

Mary Wortley Montagu’s description of discovering the concept of inoculation against smallpox, in Adrianople, Turkey in 1717:

I am going to tell you a thing that I am sure will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together), the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much venom as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the middle of the forehead, in each arm, and on the breast, to mark the sign of the cross, but this has a very ill effect, all these wounds leaving little scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who choose to have them in the legs, or that part of the arm that is concealed. The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenth or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days’ time they are as well as before their illness. Where they are woundeed, there remain running sores during the distemper, which I don’t doubt is a great relief to it. Every year thousands undergo this operation; and the French embassador [sic] says pleasantly, thay they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it; and you may believe I am very well satisfied of the safety of the experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son.

I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them.

Which, of course, she did. Love the cynicism about the altruism of doctors at the time, though.


Recipe for eternal youth

From an anonymous early 18th-century collection of remedies, the following recipe is for a Pomatum, a perfumed ointment that was normally employed as a kind of hair gel, but in this case was claimed to preserve the user’s looks as they were when they first started to apply it! I’ve modernised the spelling and punctuation – and there’s no guarantee as to its efficacy…

Take the kidney of a very fat sheep, lay it eight days in spring water and be sure to turn it once a day. Pick the fat clean from the skins and beat it very well in a stone mortar, having dried it very well first with a clean cloth. Then put your suet into a pipkin [earthenware cooking pot] and melt it with a gentle fire, stirring it often with a spoon. When ’tis melted put in a good big white lilly-root, cleaned, washed and dried and bruised a little, a quarter of an ounce of benjamin and as much storax [these are a shrub and a tree, so probably the bark], both bruised, with 2 grams of musk. Then boil all together softly for a quarter of an hour, then strain it into a basin and beat it a little and put it into flat pots. When ’tis cold tie papers upon them and keep them in a cool place.

Then to make it fit for your use, take half a pound of the suet and put it into a can and let it stand in a skillet of boiling water till it be melted. Then put to that quantity 4 ounces of sweet almonds, finely beaten. Pour it into a silver or white basin and put to it 3 spoonfuls of rose water, stir it very well with your hand one way till it be quite cold.

Wash your face with it on a cloth every night, but do not wipe it off. You shall never look worse if you continue this than when you began to use it.

Mind you, I’m not sure any sleeping partner would welcome a face covered in suet, so your efforts may be in vain!

Travellers’ tales

Travel difficulties are uppermost in many people’s minds at the moment, but life was much trickier in the eighteenth century. Many roads were virtually impassable, particularly in winter, private carriages were expensive and journeys by public coach were slow, around two hours to cover 12–14 miles; road improvements through turnpike levies did not happen until the second half of the century. Judith Madan wrote of one eventful journey in which a servant was killed:

the roads were intolerable bad & dangerous, so I cannot express my concern & dread… they were forc’d once all to get out of the coach, & the children were carry’d a good way on horse back, before they durst venture them in again, & then so violent the jolting & so deep many of the sloughs, the servants had much adoe to prevent the childrens being thrown against the sides of the coach, or against one another, which occasion’d a misfortune that has given me great pain, & I trust will you, poor Morange was by a violent jolt thrown out, & run over by the wheele which as you may easily suppose left her dead. I am heartily sorry for the accident but thank God it was the worse we met with.

Travelling light was sometimes not an option. Martin Madan sent instructions to his wife who was setting out from Northill (their house in Bedfordshire) to spend some time with her husband in Gloucester. Writing on April 11th, he said:

I have taken 5 bed chambers, two parlours, a kitchen & cellar for which I am to pay two guineas a week, the first week in May I expect you, I shall send a pair of Lady Stapletons horses to Northill to be there the last of this month, if you set out the next day, you will be at Chiltenham the 3d of May. I forgot to tell you sheets & linnen of all sorts you must bring with you, I recommend your bringing a doz of silver knives, forks & spoons, the casters & little salvers, which will be plate enough, & I believe the rest of the plate had better be sent to Mr Palmers – China the landlady is to furnish.

A week later he gave detailed instructions for the route:

I will mention to you the route I wou’d have you take, from Northill to Newport Pagnell, where you’ll dine, & lye at Buckingham, from thence to Chipping Norton. If I remember the distance, you may perform it without baiting, if you shou’d, you may easily lye at Stow in the Wold, & the next day dine at Cheltenham. The first days journey is the only long one, but if you are in the coach at six, you will reach Buckingham in good time.

Nor were travels unaffected by the weather. Martin wrote from Brussels during the War of Austrian Succession:

I told you in my last that our orders were to march the 13th, but the violent snow that fell for 15 days successively has render’d the roads impracticable beyond Maestrich, & as most of the advanced divisions of our army have not been able to stir we were obliged to remain here. The weather is now changed and we are order’d to hold our selves in readiness to march next Teusday, however, I cannot think we shall move so soon, for by a letter to day from Aix la Chapelle we are inform’d that the floods are out, & what gives me great pain, no news is come to us of General Ligoniers command which pass’d the Rhine above ten days ago. Prince George of Hesse said this day that 20 dragoons with their horses were lost by sloughs, I suppose smother’d. Our route will take up 31 days march, so that I may reasonably hope by the length of day & great power of the sun the roads will be much mended before we enter this terrible countrey.

At least they didn’t have to cope with a volcano as well!

Bodleian Library, The Madan papers, MS Eng. Lett. c.284: 100-101, April 18th, 1728; MS. Eng. lett. C.285: 59, April 11th, 1742; 63, April 17th 1742; 87, April 16th, 1743.

Musical angels

To celebrate Easter, here are some images from a visit to Valencia a couple of years ago.

In the 15th century, Rodrigo Borgia commissioned Italian painters Paolo de San Leocadio from Lombardy and Francesco Pagano from Naples to redecorate the Great Chapel of Valencia Cathedral. The future Alexander VI wanted to blend the Gothic with the Renaissance, requesting the artists to paint frescoes in the new style between the ribs of the thirteenth-century vaulted roof above the cathedral’s main altar. His commission asked for ‘two angels… with golden wings in exquisite colours; to decorate the ribs with branches, leaves and fruits, painted with gold of ducats and to paint the windows in azure and gold of ducats, too’ (www.catedraldevalencia.es).

The result was ten angels playing musical instruments against a striking blue sky set with gold stars, which had been hidden for 300 years until the frescoes’ fortuitous rediscovery in 2004. This is one of the earliest examples of Renaissance art in Spain, where the fresco technique of watercolour painting on damp plaster was also rare.

Paolo de San Leocadio was trained at Padua where he was heavily influenced by painters such as Andrea Mantegna. This influence is evident in the boldness of these breath-taking frescoes, their rational and clever placement in the vault and the gradations of light and colour, which in technique are reminiscent of those in the Camera Picta at Mantua.

Frescoes in Valencia CathedralWhat makes these frescoes an embodiment of Renaissance values? First is their intelligent use of perspective and scale. Unlike in architecture, where classical models were readily available, few Roman or Greek paintings had survived. Therefore humanist thinkers tried to recreate classical art in spirit instead by studying and practising ideas of classical proportion, which also led to the discovery of the mathematical rules of perspective. Instead of the one-dimensional, out-of-scale flat figures and landscape of mediaeval paintings, Renaissance painters mastered the art of naturalistic representation that showed objects at a lifelike scale. The angels in the Valencian frescoes appear to be three-dimensional and to be flying through the vault while playing their instruments. The drapery of their contemporary rather than classical clothing is also well executed, in a manner resembling that of Leonardo da Vinci, as is their hair.

The second feature is the use of colour. The lapis lazuli blue and gold are characteristic of early Renaissance painting and reflected the magnificentia of the patron, who would have had to pay for the expensive ingredients required to produce them. The skill of the painter is also evident in the depth of the colour, which was more difficult to ensure in fresco than in oil because of the painting technique, which tended to produce more faded hues.

Frescoes in Valencia CathedralThe third is the wit of the composition, the humanist Renaissance characteristic of being playfully ironic: each angel is different and has an individual face, they are cleverly arranged to mirror each other around the ceiling without being identical, the placement of each body is suited to his instrument, and there appears to be a breeze blowing through their hair and clothes.

One further feature of these frescoes that is significant in Spain is that they were commissioned by a member of the clergy, albeit one who did not exactly have a reputation for piety. Ecclesiastical commissions tended to outnumber those from private patrons in Spain. The frescoes, and indeed Paolo de San Leocadio’s subsequent appointment as official papal artist, would have been intended to reinforce Rodrigo Borgia’s position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Furthermore, the subject of the frescoes is pious: the pagan and sometimes even pornographic images that were fashionable in humanist circles in Italy were frowned on in more strongly Catholic Spain.

A wedding we are soon to have

Another marriage story, although I’m not sure who’s the more prudent in this situation. I’ll let Martin Madan tell the tale (punctuation as in the original!):

Since I came here, I have acted a part which I beleive will meet with but little approbation from the fair sex, I have been the means of breaking off a wedding. I’ll explain the matter to you. Cornet Carter, who you have seen at my house, had engag’d himself to a young lady of this country of a good family & £3,000 fortune, parents consents were obtain’d, the wedding day fix’t, & a settlement concluded upon… the young gentleman open’d himself to me & confessing many conflicts with himself upon this serious affair, that he consider’d he was of an extravagant disposition & was afraid he cou’d not curb his passions, & that their fortunes were too small to maintain them as they had been bred, I found him so uneasie that I undertook to break off the match, which he consented to. I presently wrote a letter to the young ladys father, as from him, in which I insisted upon a point that I know he wou’d not grant, the letter was sent, the father astonisht, Mama scolding & abusing the promis’d bridegroom, & poor Miss drownd in tears, in short the whole family is in an uproar, my pupil has just receiv’d a message to beg the favour of him to come to the house for Papa to speak to him, I was at first in doubt whether I shou’d let him go, but he seem’d so brave & resolute that I have trusted him, he had been gone there two hours which makes me suspect Misses tears & tender vows will melt my young mans heart once more, in my next I shall be able to tell you what this interview has produc’d, if the paramours re-engage they are for ever undone, this conduct of mine I fancy you’ll blame, you will not be able to get the better of your own sex so far as to judge impartially of this matter, but I am sure & very well satisfied within my self I have done a good thing.

Three days later, he continues:

In my last, I told you I had been endeavouring to separate an amorous couple, but alas! Love had too far engag’d himself on the fair ones side to permit my advice to have the wish’t for success. I thought my pupil was fortified against all the wiles of your sex, therefore permitted him to take, as I thought, a last interview, but the fair one confuted all his reasonings by her too powerful tears. Her declarations to him, of living for him alone, that being his, & his only, was what she prefer’d to all the world besides, that he was the object of her wishes & such kind of intoxicating language sunk my young man into his former lethargy, & he meanly gave up his once redeem’d liberty, and a wedding we are soon to have.

Measuringworth.com calculates that £3,000 in 1725 would be worth £384,000 using the retail price index or £4.89 million using average earnings, so whatever his ‘passions’ were, they must have been extravagant in the extreme. Whether they did get married and what happened afterwards is unfortunately not recorded.

Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c.284: 85, March 21 1725; 87, March 24, 1725

Marriage à la mode

I’ve sadly neglected this blog of late – occupied with writing and rewriting (and rewriting) a funding application and then catching up with other work as a result. I will be writing about what I’ve consequently learned about what I want to research and the sources I need to look at, but in the meantime, here are two vignettes of eighteenth-century marriage.

The first is an elopement, between Lord Rochford (William Henry Nassau-de-Zulestein, who was later to become Secretary of State and was 23 at the time) and Miss Young, a maid of honour to Princess Augusta who at the time was living at Norfolk House. Judith Madan writes:

The secret is at last come out – Miss Young is elope’d on Saturday last at about ten at night. She went from her lodgings at Norfolk House & giving no notice to her servants. They sat up all night expecting her home. They found on her table a lettr directed to Mrs Payne. The contents were as follows –
Dear Madam, As I have long had reason to think you my freind, I beg you to present my duty to the Prince & Princess, & beg they would think so favourable of me as they can, but as I never lov’d, nor never could be happy with any man but Lord Rochford, misfortunes have oblig’d me to fly to him for protection. I am Dear Madam &c.

and finishes with a flourish:

I am sorry Miss Young should either have not read Pamela – or read it to so little purpose.

Samuel Richardson’s novel about a servant girl who resists the attentions of her master, leading him eventually to marry her, had been published earlier that year. The Duchess of Somerset also notes the event in a letter to the Countess of Pomfret, commenting dismissively:

Why she named him I cannot comprehend, unless she had said she was to be married to him; which I hear that nobody believes to be the case. In my opinion, she should have left it to the world to make what conjectures they pleased since she was not more particular.

Nevertheless, Miss Young eventually got her way. Inveterate letter writer Horace Walpole reports two years later:

Did I tell you that Lord Rochford has at last married Miss Young? I say, at last, for they don’t pretend to have been married this twelvemonth; but they were publicly married last week.

At the other end of the age scale is the marriage of Judith’s brother, the Reverend Doctor John Cowper, father of the poet William Cowper. John’s first wife, Anne Donne, had died in 1737 at the age of 34. In his second marriage he certainly seems to have met his match. Martin Madan writes:

You will not be surpris’d when I tell you the Doctor is to be married within three weeks, since it is a state that you & all his friends expected he wou’d re-engage in, but he shall, this time, act prudentially, for he settles his person on a widdow that has £500 a year jointure besides some money. My authority for this news is good, your niece Molly… told it me, with many diverting circumstances. The Doctor & the Widdow Marriot, for so she’s call’d, toy & wanton like two lovers of eighteen, no tea can he drink but what she makes, no part of the room is half so agreable as where he sits, but yet she is not so blind but she can find fault, the Doctors wigg is too fair, his coat is ill made, his morning dress is unbecoming, all which he is about to remedy, dark wiggs are bespoke, La Motte, I suppose, for the future is to have the honour to cloath him, & for his disability she has chose him a scarlet banian him’d with black.

In a later letter he adds:

As yet I’ve not seen the Doctor, who I understand is in town, & I suppose designs to continue so, for his bride cannot bear the country in winter, & indeed it is unreasonable for a husband to consult his own inclinations when they disagree with his wife’s, especially in matters of moment, & what can be more so than the pleasure of London…

The relationship was not completely one-sided in terms of power, however, at least at the beginning:

But in return, the Doctor complains her hoop is too large therefore she has sent to town for a larger, thus you find, as yet, the complaisance is not equally reciprocal.

MS. Eng. lett. C.285: 37, May 2nd 1740; 17, Nov 20th 1739; 31, Jan 20th 1740/1