Traditional European Folklore on Death and Dying

A graveyard

Having recently been studying Victorians and the culture of death, I have been reflecting on how many of the traditions and superstitions around death and burial have their roots in folklore. (If you’re interested in folklore do check out my post on gardening folklore).

Today we rarely come into contact with death, but in the not too distant past most people died at home. And because the death rate was previously a lot higher, most people would have encountered a dead body and likely been part of washing or laying out of family members. This meant that death was less of a taboo.

Numerous traditions have sprung up around the process of death, dealing with the body and burial — mostly to prevent bad luck and to ease the spirit’s passage to the afterlife. Below is collected some European folklore associated with death, funerals and graveyards:

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When removing a dead body from a house make sure you always take them out feet first, otherwise they might turn and beckon someone from the house to follow them in death.

If you hear three knocks on your front door, but when you open it there is no one there, then it is death, warning you he is soon to come for you.

In Victorian times it was believed that lying on a pillow of feathers (sometimes specifically pigeon feathers) meant that the dying person could not pass peacefully away. This meant that feather pillows were used to ‘prolong’ the life of the dying so that family members could reach their bedside in time to bid them goodbye. On the flip side, if a person was thought to be lingering painfully, the pillow would be whipped away in the hope that it would end their earthly suffering.

Crows are believed to be messengers between this world and the next, so seeing a crow from your sick bed was believed to be an omen that death was near.

If lightning hits the house of a dying person then it reveals that the devil has come to claim them.

The last name to pass the lips of a dying person will be the next to die.

If you see a white owl in the day time it is said to portend death.9398556943_3b5e34dde3_z

Never bring a peacock feather into the house, it is extremely unlucky and thought to be taunting death.

As soon as a person dies all mirrors in the house should be covered. Mirrors are thought to be gateways to the spirit world and it was thought to be bad luck to see a corpse in reflection. Some traditions believed that if this happened their spirit would be forever stuck in the mirror.

A bowl of salt should be placed on the corpse’s chest as soon as they have passed. This not only reduces bad smells and putrefaction but was also thought to keep bad spirits away.

Always leave the window open a crack after death, so that the soul of the departed can escape.

If the head of the household dies then the bees must be told. All family news of import must be relayed to the bees or they will desert the hive.

After death, all the clocks in the house should be stopped. This tradition releases the dead person’s spirit as it tells them that time is over for them.20227647874_66fd98b54d_o

To cure a relative of drunkenness, put a coin in the mouth of a corpse. Later remove the coin and drop it into the drink of the drunkard without them noticing.

In a tradition dating back to medieval times, if many people from the same family died of a sickness, a black ribbon would be tied around any living thing (even animals and plants) entering the house to protect them.

Touch the forehead of the dead to ensure they do not haunt your dreams.

Funerals

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

Never put the clothes of a living person on a corpse. That person will die too as the body rots.

If rains falls into an open grave it is seen as a sign that another death will occur in the family within a year.

Never count the number of cars or carriages in a funeral procession, it is thought to foretell the number of days until your own death.

Do not point at a funeral procession or death will come for you next.

Once the body had passed over the threshold of the house then a nail would be driven into the doorway to prevent them ever returning as a spirit.

It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on, if you do then you must touch a button on your clothes in order to stay ‘connected’ to life.

If a black cat crosses the path of a funeral procession then it is thought that another family member will soon die.6263557124_46a5b239bd_z (1)

People are said to traditionally wear black to a funeral as it makes them blend in. Death, therefore, will not notice you and take you next.

A funeral procession should not return home the same way it came or the spirit of the dead will follow and return to the house.

Many believed that you should hold your breath as your pass a graveyard or you will breathe in evil spirits.

If the body lies unburied over a Sunday then there will be another death in the family before the week is out.

Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves as it was believed that the spirit of the deceased might enter into them if they touched the coffin with bare hands.besieged-house-ghosts-768

Thunder after a funeral indicates that the person’s soul has gone to heaven.

Never wear new shoes to a funeral, it is thought that you are taunting the devil.

Whichever foot the horse drawing the funeral carriage sets off on indicates the sex of the next person to die. The left foot leading indicates that a women will be next to expire, the right, a man.

Graveyards

A graveyard
A graveyard

If you fall over three times in the same day at a graveyard then it was believed you would be dead within a year.

Bodies are traditionally faced with their feet to the east and their heads to the west so that when the sun rises they will greet it.

If the dead person lived a good life then flowers will bloom on their grave. If they led a bad life then only weeds will grow.

Some cemeteries have mazes planted at the entrance because it was thought ghosts could only travel in straight lines and so would not be able to leave the graveyard.

Never whistle is a cemetery or you will summon the devil.

Moss picked from off a grave stone was said to cure headaches.

If you enjoyed this post why not check out my books for more arcane history and fascinating facts.

 

 

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When Charlotte Brontë met William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray was one of Charlotte Brontë’s literary heroes. In 1848 she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him, after much admiring the recently released Vanity Fair (1848).

She wrote in the preface to that edition that Thackeray was ‘the first social regenerator of the day’, adding, ‘His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer- cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.’

Illustration of Charlotte Bronte by Edmund Henry Garrett from 1899 edition of Jane Eyre
Illustration of Charlotte Bronte by Edmund Henry Garrett from 1899 edition of Jane Eyre via The British Library

In a letter of thanks in reply to Brontë’s publisher, Thackeray wrote that the dedication was ‘the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life.’ Unfortunately however, it was also a source of embarrassment and gossip. Unbeknown to Brontë, Thackeray, in an echo of Mr Rochester, had a mentally-ill wife who had been locked away in an institution and who Thackeray was unable to divorce. Rumours abounded after the dedication that Currer Bell had been a governess in Thackeray’s household and had written the fiction inspired by real life.

Despite this uneasy undertone Brontë was still keen to meet the much-admired Thackeray and when she visited London in December 1849 was happy to have an introduction afforded by her publisher, George Smith. This first meeting was at a dinner and Brontë had expected so much from Thackeray she was a little unnerved to find he was just an ordinary gentleman.

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Image from The Oxford Thackeray. With illustrations via The British Library

Brontë struggled to think of anything to say, her shyness and her disappointment likely mingling and making her mute. Thackeray was reportedly also thrown by the encounter. In Lewis Melville’s, The Life of William Makepeace Thackeray (1899), an anecdote of this first meeting is recounted:

At dinner, Miss Bronte was placed opposite him. ‘And,’ said Thackeray, ‘I had the miserable humiliation of seeing her ideal of me disappearing, as everything went into my mouth, and nothing came out of it, until, at last, as I took my fifth potato, she leaned across, with clasped hands and tearful eyes, and breathed imploringly, ‘Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don’t!’

Whether or not this is a true reflection of the meeting is hard to know, but I can’t help hoping it’s true as the awkwardness depicted by the mindless potato-over-eating Thackeray is quite an image to enjoy.

The pair’s second meeting was no less unsuccessful. Thackeray invited Brontë to a dinner party for lady writers at his house in June 1850. Again Brontë was crippled by shyness and barely spoke, the other guests were reportedly disdainful of her brooding, quiet manner and her outmoded dress. Thackeray’s daughter Anne, said of the dinner ‘It was a gloomy and silent evening. Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation, which never began at all.’

At one point one of the ladies attempted to brighten things up by addressing Brontë directly, asking her how she liked London. An interminable pause followed before Brontë uttered ‘Yes; and no,’ and the conversation ended.

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How the evening might have looked (except less fun) from an unrelated illustration from The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray via The British Library

Brontë ended up leaving the gathering early and Thackeray, embarrassed by the abject failure of the evening, quietly sloped off to his club, leaving his other guests to entertain themselves.

And so it seems the adage is true, never meet your heroes. Both Brontë and Thackeray, so sparkling and alive on the page, struggled to live up to the pressures of performing in society. Perhaps this can give all us mere mortals some succour that talent can exist behind even the most unlikely exterior.

If you enjoyed this post do check out my books which are full of fascinating historical tidbits and numerous book-related facts.

10 Bestselling Books Written in Less Than 2 Months

Writing often seems like a tortuous process, we tend to picture novelists hopped up on coffee, hunched over their laptops staring into space while their creative muse torments and then deserts them. However some writers subvert that image by churning out a book in the time it takes most people to get round to writing their shopping list.

Whether entering a drug-fuelled fugue state to get the words down, or simply creating a really, really long piece of paper on which to type, the following 10 writers have written a bestselling book in super quick time:

1. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming: 2 months

Ian Fleming was on holiday in Jamaica in January 1952 and, growing bored of spear-fishing and over-thinking his impending marriage, he decided he needed something to occupy his idle hands. Fleming sat down at the typewriter and began to write, dashing off 2,000 words every morning, until by 18 March the manuscript was finished. Fleming had no faith in his ‘adolescent tripe’ but fortunately for Bond fans everywhere, publishers thought differently and Casino Royale was published in April 1953, introducing the public to James Bond and marking the start a 14-book series.

Fleming stuck to his writing routine and most of his later Bond books were also written in under two months. When Birdsong writer, Sebastian Faulks took on Fleming’s mantle to pen Bond continuation novel Devil May Care in 2008 he too decided to adopt the speed-writing technique. Faulks’ previous book Human Traces had taken him 5 years to complete, so copying Fleming’s strict 2,000 word a day method was quite a departure.

2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 6 weeks

William Faulkner wrote his fifth novel As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks while he worked the night shift at a power plant. Faulkner would start writing at midnight and finish as 4 a.m. the words tumbling neatly into place. So confident was he in his writing technique that he claimed he never changed one word from his first draft, despite the fact that the 59 chapters are narrated by 15 different characters.

3. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard: 6 weeks

Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’ Mines in just 6 weeks after his brother bet him he could not write a book as good as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Haggard proved his brother wrong as his novel became an instant bestseller and inspired many others to pen books in the new ‘lost world’ genre. Despite the speed at which it was written, King Solomon’s Mines retains an aura of reality as Haggard had lived and travelled in Africa for many years and as a consequence had ample source material in his memory banks.

King Solomon’s Mines was a huge success (although not as much as his next book She (1887) which went on to sell over 83 million copies) and part of its popularity can perhaps be traced back to the astoundingly good early reviews. Some 20 gushing reviews of the book were published anonymously in the press on publication in 1885 and it was only many years later that it emerged that they had all been written by Haggard’s good friend, Andrew Lang.

4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 6 weeks

"Marley's Ghost", original illustration by John Leech from the 1843 edition via The British Library
“Marley’s Ghost”, original illustration by John Leech from the 1843 edition via The British Library

Charles Dickens was a prolific writer and he was used to keeping to tight deadlines because his books were published weekly in serial form in Victorian magazines, however he excelled himself with A Christmas Carol, completing the work in about 6 weeks. Dickens started writing the story in October and worked intensely, occasionally taking breaks at night for a stroll through the streets of London, before finishing it at the end of November. The book was an immediate festive success and has since spawned numerous stage plays, movies and musicals, proving the enduring popularity of Mr Scrooge.

5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac: 3 weeks

Although Kerouac spent a number of years formulating the ideas for On the Road, both in his head and in his journals, the complete draft was typed out in a manic three weeks. Kerouac liked to type fast and hated to be interrupted to change the paper in his typewriter, so before he started typing out his work he taped together numerous sheets of paper to create a continuous roll 120-feet long. This original manuscript is today preserved at the University of Indiana.

6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 3 weeks

Anthony Burgess’s brilliantly dark dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange was written in 1962. Burgess liked to claim he wrote it in just three weeks, motivated only by money. The novel was hugely influential, a fact which was magnified by Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. Burgess himself did not approve of Kubrick’s film (he was especially annoyed that Kubrick ignored his final chapter) and referred to it dismissively as ‘Clockwork Marmalade’.

Although Burgess was best known for A Clockwork Orange he wrote a great number of other works over his career, ranging from nonfiction to plays, essays, poems and biographies. Burgess came to writing late in life after originally working as a teacher. At the age of 40 Burgess was given just one year to live after being diagnosed with a brain tumour so he began writing to try and leave some money for his wife. The diagnosis turned out to be wrong and Burgess continued to live and write until a different cancer (this time of the lung) really did finish him off aged 76.

7. The Maigret series by Georges Simenon: 11 days

Belgian writer Georges Simenon was extremely prolific, penning over 500 novels during his career, but he was best-known for his beloved detective Maigret. Simenon was an incredibly fast writer and could produce 6 to 8,000 words in one day and on average he would complete a novel in just 11 days. To continue to be so prolific Simenon stuck to a strict writing schedule, fuelled by pots of coffee, numerous tobacco pipes and wearing the same shirt for the entire period it took to compose the latest book.

Simenon became so famous for his speedy writing technique that when Alfred Hitchcock phoned him for a chat only to be rebuffed by his assistant as he was in the middle of writing a novel, Hitchcock was said to have quipped ‘Let him finish. I’ll hang on.’

8. Rasselas by Samuel Johnson: 1 week

Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

After the death of his mother, lexicographer Samuel Johnson needed to pay for funeral expenses, and in order to do so he did what every good writer would do – he wrote a book. Johnson sat and wrote every night for a week (no doubt taking the odd break to weep over his lost mother) until he had a completed novel. The resulting book Rasselas was Johnson’s only novel but proved to be successful enough to pay for his mother’s funeral.

Johnson’s life’s work was the compilation of A Dictionary of the English Language which listed some 40,000 words and took a rather more lengthy 8 years to complete. Although a great work for some puzzling reason Johnson’s dictionary contained no words beginning with the letter ‘X’. Under ‘X’ Johnson wrote: ‘X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.’ He had a point as X-rays weren’t discovered until 1895 and Xanadu wasn’t released until 1980 …

9. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 3 days

Stevenson had long had the idea of writing a story based on the idea of a split personality but had been unable to find the right setting. Legend has it that Stevenson, desperately ill with tuberculosis and drugged out of his mind on medicinal cocaine fell into a drug-addled sleep in which the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came to him. On waking he sat at his desk and in 3 feverish days wrote out the first draft. His wife, Fanny, on reading the completed manuscript thought it was drivel and threw it into the fire, causing poor Stevenson to spend another feverish 3 days re-writing the manuscript once again. Thankfully this version was kept from the flames and went on to be a great success, finally allowing Stevenson to pay off his debts.

Original manuscripts by authors are usually highly-prized and are often gifted to national libraries or universities associated with the novelist, however unfortunately over half of Stevenson’s manuscripts have been lost. Descendants of Stevenson in need of some cash after World War I, sold most of his manuscripts including Treasure Island and The Black Arrow which have sadly never resurfaced.

10. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne: 2.5 days

When John Boyne came up with the idea of his holocaust-based story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas he was so inspired he sat down and wrote it out, barely stopping for food, drink or sleep. At the end of two and a half days Boyne was done. The Irish novelist had already written a number of other books but took a rather more sedate four weeks to complete those first drafts, however he said that with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas the story just poured out of him. The book has since been made into a multi-award winning film.

If you enjoyed this post please check out my books, such as The Book Lovers’ Miscellany for more on books, writers and writing.

Traditional Signs of Guilt

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard

In the time before DNA testing, dusting for fingerprints and blood-spatter analysis proving guilt or innocence was a rather less scientific matter. Folklore, superstition and religion ruled.

The high German epic poem Nibelungenlied, written in about 1200, features a scene in which the dragon-slayer Siegfried has been murdered and his body laid out. When his murderer, Hagen approaches, Siegfried’s wounds begin to bleed afresh, indicating Hagen’s guilt. This phenomena was known as cruentation, whereby a victim’s body would react should the murderer approach, and before forensic science developed in the early nineteenth century, this was one of the many methods used across Europe for proving guilt .

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard
From Tales of Terror (1808) via The British Library

Cruentation

The word cruentation comes from the Latin cruentatus, which means to ‘make bloody’. The method likely originated in ancient Germanic practices and from about 1100 spread across Europe. To carry out cruentation, the body of the victim would be laid out on a bier in the courtroom (hence the practice’s alternate names: bier-right or ordeal of the bier) in the belief that it retained some sentience after death. The suspect was then required to approach the body, perhaps circling it a number of times, or placing their hand upon it. If the suspect was guilty, the body would supposedly signal this by frothing at the mouth, bleeding from the nose or oozing from existing wounds.

In an indication of the pervasive nature of this belief, Shakespeare’s play Richard III (in Act I, Scene II) includes a scene of cruentation when Lady Anne confronts the murderer of King Henry VI, saying:

O! gentlemen; see, see! dead Henry’s wounds

Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.

Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,

For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood

In reality modern science has shown that from about six hours after death all the blood in a dead body would have congealed. The fluid which may have leaked from these dead bodies (let’s face it its likely they would have been jiggled about a fair bit when getting them into the courtroom) was probably what’s delightfully known as ‘purge fluid’ which is created in the early stages of decomposition.

By the end of the seventeenth century British courts no longer used cruentation and the Germans followed suit by the end of the eighteenth century as the Age of Enlightenment saw Europe begin to turn away from superstition. However the Americans continued to occasionally employ the method right up to the mid-nineteenth century (for more on late American cases of cruentation see this wonderful post).

Trial by ordeal

Another method to uncover guilt was trial by ordeal. This was founded on the belief that God would protect the innocent from being falsely accused or intervene to show a sign of their guilt.

Trial by fire was used across the world in a number of different guises. The Indian epic poem Ramayana depicts Sita going through a trial by fire when Rama doubts her purity. Her innocence is proven after she stands in a circle of flames and remains entirely unscathed. Similarly in Europe the accused was often asked to plunge their hand into a fire to retrieve an object, or to hold a red-hot iron. Their innocence was proven as long as the wound appeared to be healing, rather than festering, within three days of the trial.

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Sita’s ordeal by Fire via The British Museum

The most famous trials by water were seen in seventeenth-century Salem during the infamous witch trials. Here the accused were bound in the fetal position and thrown into a body of water. Those who sunk were deemed innocent and hauled out, those who floated were branded as guilty of witchcraft.

Witch-finding was a hotbed of superstition and a number of extremely dubious methods to extract ‘confessions’ or proof of guilt were utilised. This included: making the accused read aloud the Lord’s Prayer — any stumbling or mistakes and guilt was proven; bringing their bewitched victims before them and making the accused touch them, no reaction proved innocence whereas any ‘waking’ proved they had been under a spell; and ‘pricking’ supposed witches’ marks on the body of the accused, if they showed no pain, they were guilty.

In 1215 Pope Innocent III banned priests from cooperating with any trials by fire or water, a ruling which helped the practice to become less frequent in Europe, but witch trials during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the practice revive and it did not truly die out until after the American witch trials of the seventeenth century — indicating the extent to which folk belief pervaded all levels of society.

If you enjoyed this post do check out my books for more on arcane history, books, words and libraries.

A Collection of Literary Orphans of Note

Illustration of Oliver Twist 'asking for more' by George Cruikshank (1839)

Literature is littered with orphans. The classic plot trope of the poor parentless child has appeared in numerous books across the eras, untethering our fictional heroes and allowing them to muster their resilience and overcome their tragic start.

For a bit of fun I thought I would collate some literary orphans of note here and record the dismal fate of their parents:

Anne Shirley

in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Walter and Bertha Shirley died when Anne was just three months old after contracting typhoid fever. Verdict: Disease

Harry Potter

in Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling (1997–2007)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Harry’s parents Lily and James Potter were murdered by the evil dark wizard Voldemort using the Avada Kedavra curse when Harry was just a baby. Verdict: Murder

Mary Lennox

in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mary’s parents died in India from cholera when Mary was 10 but as they were generally too busy to pay much attention to her she was brought up by her maid and did not miss them. Verdict: Disease.

Oliver Twist

in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Oliver’s mother died in childbirth at the workhouse and his father died in Rome before he was born, leaving his mother destitute. Verdict: Childbirth/disease.

Illustration of Oliver Twist 'asking for more' by George Cruikshank (1839)
Oliver ‘asking for more’ by George Cruikshank (1839)

Becky Sharp

in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Becky’s mother was an actress and opera singer who died (of unknown causes) when Becky was very young. Her father was an abusive alcoholic artist who died from delirium tremens (sudden alcohol withdrawal) when Becky was a teenager. Verdict: Unknown/alcoholism

Jane Fairfax

in Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s father Lieutenant Fairfax dies ‘in action abroad’ and her mother from consumption when Jane is just three years old. Verdict: War and disease.

Jane Eyre

in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s parents died from typhus which her father caught while helping the poor. Verdict: Disease.

Mowgli

in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mowgli’s parents were killed (and quite possibly eaten) by a tiger. Verdict: Misadventure.

James Bond

in James Bond series by Ian Fleming (1953–1966)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: James’s parents died when he was 11 years old in a mountaineering accident in Chamonix. Verdict: Misadventure.

Conclusion

When researching this piece I came across numerous other literary orphans (such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Pip in Great Expectations, Pauline, Posey and Petrova in Ballet Shoes to name but a few) where the circumstance of their parent’s death was glossed over to such a degree it was impossible to decipher their cause of death. Indeed even in the books I included most of the parental deaths were alluded to in passing, only really in Harry Potter does the whole tragic scene (which is so central to the story) eventually get played out.

The device of making the main character an orphan immediately creates adversity and sympathy for them, often providing a motivation for their actions. Being an orphan also excludes a child from the usual family responsibilities, giving them the excuse to set off on exciting adventures and to live outside the norm.

My entirely unscientific analysis of fictional orphans leads me to conclude that the most common cause of death for literary parents is disease, a rather simple (and historically all too common) way of quickly dispatching superfluous parents.

Do you have a favourite literary orphan? If so please tell me about them below.

If you enjoyed this you might like to try my book The Book Lovers’ Miscellany which is full of facts on books, writers and writing.

 

The Tragic Lives of 5 Artists’ Muses

Black and white photo of the artist Camille Claudel

The Muses in classical mythology were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Their very being inspired the creativity of artists, writers, poets and dramatists alike. However in more modern times being a muse was a less than blessed existence, with many finding themselves cast aside, their own ambitions thwarted by their association with a more successful (invariably male) artist. Below are 5 artists’ muses and their tragic tales:

Camille Claudel (1863–1943)

Camille Claudel was a sculptor in her own right but in 1885 she went to work as studio assistant to Auguste Rodin. This relationship was initially fruitful as Claudel was able to

Black and white photo of the artist Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel (1884), unknown photographer

work closely with the artist – getting access to nude models which during that period was often difficult for female artists, modelling elements of Rodin’s larger work (for example she created the hands and feet for Rodin’ Burghers of Calais) and acting as a model herself. By 1893 Rodin had achieved great fame and Claudel was struggling to emerge from his shadow so she left him in order to retreat to her studio to concentrate on her art.

Unfortunately Claudel’s mental health suffered and she became paranoid that Rodin was trying to spy on her and steal her ideas, causing her to destroy her own artworks. In 1913 Claudel’s mother had her committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1943 despite regular pleas by her doctors that she no longer need be incarcerated. She was buried in a mass grave with no funeral. Today scholars have recognised the importance of her sensual sculpting style and in 2017 a museum showcasing her work opened in Nogent-sur-Seine. Ironically she now also has a room dedicated to her works at the Rodin Museum in Paris – providing recognition of a sort that still binds her inextricably with the man who over-shadowed her talent in life.

Victorine Meurent (1844–1927)

Victorine Meurent was a young working-class girl who posed for many of Manet’s most scandalous and famous paintings including The Street Singer (1862), Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863).

Olympia by Édouard Manet Olympia (1863) Oil on canvas 130.5 cm × 190 cm (51.4 in × 74.8 in) Held by the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Olympia by Édouard Manet Olympia (1863), held by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Meurent had ambitions to be an artist herself and went on to study with portrait painter Etienne Leroy. Manet disapproved of her more traditional painting style and they drifted apart, however she found some success showing at the Salon a number of times and was inducted into the Société des Artistes Français in 1904. However making a living from art was not easy and she later fell on hard times. After Manet’s death in 1883 she wrote to his widow politely asking for some of the profits made from Manet’s paintings of her that the artist had promised her. But Madame Manet declined to reply. Only one of Meurent’s paintings survive today, Palm Sunday, displayed at a small provincial museum in Colombes.

Alice Prin (1901–1953)

Known as Kiki de Montparnasse, Alice Prin was a muse to many of the foremost artists, photographers and film-makers of 1920s Paris including Chaïm Soutine and Man Ray (who was also her lover).

Photograph of Alice Prin 'Kiki' in Nu au miroir, by Julien Mandel, 1910-1930
Alice Prin ‘Kiki’ in Nu au miroir, by Julien Mandel, 1910-1930

Prin was beautiful and bawdy, she sang cabaret in Le Jockey Bar in Montparnasse where artists, eccentrics and creators thronged. Here she caught the eye of Moïse Kisling who recreated her in Jeune Femme au Decollette (1922) and surrealist Óscar Dominguez, but it was photographer Man Ray who really forged a connection. For six years they were lovers and Man Ray would dress and make her up each day, creating an ever-changing look. But Prin was revered and reviled in equal measure for embodying the debauched and decadent world of 1920s Paris and her feisty character at times became too much – after an especially vicious bar fight for which she was arrested, Man Ray ended their relationship. As the roaring twenties drew to an end Prin struggled to find modelling work, returning to cabaret singing to fund her cocaine and alcohol habit. She remained a fixture of Montparnasse until her sudden death aged 52 in 1953 by then famous simply as a relic of a once vibrant scene.

Gala Diakonova (1894–1982)

Gala Diakonova met and fell in love with French poet and one of the founders of the surrealist movement, Paul Eluard, when they were both just 17. She went on to have an affair with the artist Max Ernst who painted her a number of times, and ultimately she remained in a relationship with both men (and many others) for some years. In 1929 she met Salvador Dali who was ten years her junior, they became lovers and were married in 1934. Diakonova became Dali’s leading muse so much so that he frequently signed his paintings with both their names in recognition of her part in inspiring his creativity. Due to her domineering personality and extremely promiscuous sex life Gala has not been kindly reflected in the history books and one historian quipped ‘to know her, was to loathe her’. However as Gala never spoke publicly we can only view her unconventional life through the judgemental prism of other’s impressions of her.

Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938)

Suzanne Valadon was indeed a muse and model to many celebrated artists including Renoir, Degas and Toulouse Lautrec but she also had her own successful career as an artist. Inevitably for a trail-blazing female artist hers was a bumpy road taking in affairs, an illegitimate son, broken marriages and scandal. Valadon moved to Montmatres in Paris when she was just a teenager and her bright blue eyes and small athletic figure meant she quickly became in demand as a model. Most famously Valadon modelled for Renoir, appearing in Dance at Bougival (1883) and Dance in the City (1883). She was a firm fixture of the riotous bohemian café culture of Montmatres, something that Toulouse Lautrec captured in his painting of her entitled The Hangover (1888). By the 1890s Valadon had met and befriended Degas, who became a champion of her work, encouraging her to pursue her own artistic ambitions. Through modelling and selling her own artworks Valadon managed to support her son Maurice Utrillo (himself a troubled but talented artist) and her mother, and in 1895 she married a stockbroker and was able to paint full-time. Ultimately respectability did not suit Valadon and she yearned to return to Montmatres and her Bohemian lifestyle.

Suzanne Valadon, Le Lancement du filet, huile sur toile, 1914, Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy
Casting the Net (1914) by Suzanne Valadon held at Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy

When she was 44 she embarked on an affair with her son’s 23-year-old artist friend Andre Utter, this volatile relationship was both fruitful (Utter modelled for Valadon’s well-regarded painting Casting the Net (1914)) and damaging (they fought frequently). As with many artists although Valadon achieved some recognition in her lifetime (she was the first female painter to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts) it was only after her death that her importance as an artist was truly recognised.

If you enjoyed reading about these tragic muses do check out my post of the exhumation of Lizzie Siddal (muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

For more on arcane history, books, libraries and words take a look at my books.

 

Real streets named after literary characters

The built-environment often reflects the especial history of an area, with local luminaries, ancient landmarks and builder’s names often revealed in the street names.

More recently town planners have been indulging their love of literature by including references to fictional places, characters or authors that have become associated with the region. Below are some examples of real streets named after literary locations or characters:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ – A small previously unnamed street in Southsea was named in honour of Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name by Portsmouth council in 2013. Gaiman grew up in Southsea and unveiled the new street sign himself. Happily the street really does look out onto the sea.

‘Sherlock Mews’ – This small mews can be found just off Baker Street in London (where Holmes was said to reside at 221B – itself a fictional address) and was named in honour of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth.

Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget from The Man with the Twisted Lip
Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget from The Man with the Twisted Lip

‘Bash Street’ – This street in the West Marketgait area of Dundee, Scotland was named after famous British comic The Beano’s beloved Bash Street Kids in 2014, as DC Thompson, publishers of The Beano are based there in the city.

‘Gandalf’, ‘Boromir’, ‘Saruman’, ‘Aragorn’ and many more – In Geldrop in the Netherlands a whole modern estate has streets named after characters from J. R. R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

‘Shakespeare’ – In Ontario, Canada (just up the road from Stratford – itself named after Stratford-upon-Avon) was named after the bard in 1852, supposedly after someone there said they liked his plays and suggested it as a new name for the small settlement previously known as Bell’s Corner.

‘Huckleberry Finn Drive’ – The famous Mark Twain character is immortalised in this winding road just off Mark Twain Boulevard in Orlando, Florida.

‘Little Dorrit Court’ – A number of streets around Southwark in south London are named after Charles Dickens’s characters. ‘Little Dorrit Court’ is off Borough High Street which was near where the Marshalsea Prison once stood, where the novel is set. Southwark also boasts a ‘Quilp Street’ (who would want to live there?) and a ‘Copperfield Street’.

Miss Doritt and Little Dorrit backstage at the theatre by Phiz (1857)
Miss Doritt and Little Dorrit by Phiz (1857)

‘Rickon Street’ – A new estate in Boise, Idaho allowed one of the planners to add in some street names after her favourite Game of Thrones characters. Not only did she honour the youngest Stark child but she also memorialised the entire Baratheon clan in naming ‘Baratheon Avenue’.

‘Crusoe Mews’ – This small street in Stoke Newington, north London is named after famous resident Daniel Defoe’s celebrated literary creation, Robinson Crusoe (if you’d like to know more about Daniel Defoe and where he lived in Stoke Newington this excellent blog is full of fascinating information).

Do you know of any other literary street names or places? If so please share below.

If you enjoyed this post, please do check out my book The Books Lovers’ Miscellany for plenty more bookish delights.

The Strange Afterlives of Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Illustration of the pyramids of Giza via The British Library, from Travels in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea and the Holy Land by Stephen Olin, 1843

The mummified remains of Ancient Egyptians have always held a certain gruesome fascination but today the closest we are likely to get to one is looking through glass in a museum. Even the modern display of a mummy for educational purposes brings up certain ethical questions about our treatment of the long dead, and yet this prickly moral minefield all seems rather tame when we look back in time at how, since the tenth century onwards, these ancient bodies were treated and used as commodities.

Mummy medicine

Arab doctors began using the ground up residue from ancient Egyptian mummies for medicinal purposes around the tenth century. The reasoning behind this is fairly circuitous. Originally it was bitumen (also known as asphalt), a naturally occurring semi-solid form of petroleum, which was extracted from the ground in Persia and the Near East and used as something of a cure-all. However bitumen was a scarce resource and so alternatives were sought. The historian Abdel Latif, writing in the twelfth century, revealed that doctors had wrongly assumed that the blackened state of some of the decomposing mummies was caused by the use of bitumen in the embalming process. This assumption led them to believe that the use of ground up mummy itself could be substituted medicinally for bitumen. In the Persian language bitumen was known as mum or mumiya, and as a result ancient Egyptian preserved corpses became known as ‘mummies’ and suddenly they became a useful commodity.

By the sixteenth century a trade in mummies had flourished, with whole bodies or body-parts being dug up by peasants in the countryside and transported to Cairo. Despite restrictions being placed on the trade in mummies these were flouted (with the help of a few well-placed bribes) and the bodies were transported all over Europe for use in medicine. Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle both recommended using ground up mummy for treating falls, bruising or preventing bleeding. One trader, John Sanderson, wrote of a collecting trip to Egypt in 1486:

‘I broke of all the parts of the bodies to see how the flesh was turned to drugge, and brought home divers heads, hands, armes and feet, for a shew; we brought also 600 pounds for the Turkie Companie in pieces; and brought into England in the Hercules: together with a whole body: they are lapped in above an hundred double of cloth, which rotting and pilling off, you may see the skin, flesh, fingers and nayles firme, altered blacke.’

The supply of genuine mummies could not always be maintained and it was alleged that when the supply was scant, the desiccated sun-baked bodies of animals or people who had perished in the desert were at times passed off as mummy in their stead.

Mummy pit at Thebes from Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson, 1837 via The British Library
Mummy pit at Thebes from Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson, 1837 via The British Library

Mummia as it was known became an important part of the European apothecaries’ armoury of medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The bodies were ground up into powder and this was either applied topically onto the skin, or mixed into liquid and taken as a drink. By the mid eighteenth century the efficacy of mummia as a medicine was being questioned and it began to fade from use, although it was still available from some suppliers up until the twentieth century – in 1924 a kilogram of mummia was listed by German firm E. Merck for the price of 12 gold marks.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Aside from their medicinal purposes, mummies were also in great demand as curiosities, with whole mummies or embalmed body parts often the crowning glory of any cabinet of curiosity, combining as they did both natural history and human history. In sixteenth-century France a number of collectors held mummies, Boniface de Borilly (1587–1648), whose collection was kept at Aix, was said to have ‘four crocodiles, one very large, and three smaller. Diverse bodies petrified and embalmed. One foot and a leg of a mummy.’

However the conditions in European cabinets of curiosity were quite markedly different from the mummies’ original hot, dry resting places and antiquarian John Woodward (1665-1725) cautioned:

‘I myself saw here a mummy, brought formerly out of Egypt that, after it had been for some time in our more humid air, began to corrupt and grow mouldy, emitted a foetid and cadaverous scent, and in conclusion putrefied and fell to pieces.’

Sir Hans Sloane was said to have a mummy in his cabinet of curiosity in the 1730s but by the time his collection was gifted to the nation, forming the basis for the British Museum, the mummy was no longer part of the collection and it seems likely this may well have been due to decay.

The British Museum finally acquired its first genuine Egyptian mummy in 1756 and the Louvres Egyptian rooms opened in 1827 (furnished by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt) marking the move from private museums and cabinets of curiosity to national museum collections. This would have allowed many more people to see an Egyptian mummy with their own eyes.

Unrolling mummies

By the 1830s mummies became embroiled in a new type of spectacle – the mummy unrolling party. The supposedly ‘scientific’ gatherings took place across France and Britain and saw the great and the good assemble to witness the unrolling of an ancient Egyptian mummy.

This article from The Newcastle Weekly Courant from December 1889 provides a fulsome account of one such mummy unrolling that was held at the botanical theatre of University College London:

‘Mr Budge unrolled the mummy which was closely swathed in scores of yards of thick yellowish linen of fine texture … At the beginning of the process of unrolling there was a very perceptible sickly smell of aromatics, which as the work went on gave place to a more pronounced and decidedly disagreeable odour…When at last the coverings had been removed the body was found to have been of a very dark brown colour, so dark indeed as to be almost black. The skin, where it remained, was hard and shiny.’

The article, somewhat frustratingly, does not tell us what happened to the mummified corpse once it had been unwrapped but it can be assumed that it would not have survived for long uncovered.

A 'graceful' mummy from Histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux by Tony Johannot,1830 via Old Book Illustrations
A ‘graceful’ mummy from Histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux by Tony Johannot,1830 via Old Book Illustrations

These public unwrappings no doubt provided fuel for Victorian ghost stories and encouraged the cliché of the revived, rampaging mummy that persists to this day. However as greater scientific rigour was demanded and the emphasis switched to the preservation of ancient artefacts the spectacle of mummy unrolling became consigned to the past.

Mummy brown

But the indignity of the mummy did not end here.  Since the eighteenth century ground up mummy had been mixed with myrrh and white pitch to create a deep brown paint pigment, known as ‘Mummy Brown’ or ‘Egyptian Brown’. The pigment was most frequently used mixed as an oil paint and with a good level of transparency it was especially good for shading, shadows and, of course, flesh tones.

By the nineteenth century Mummy Brown was especially sought after and it was thought to have been used by Eugene Delacroix for his decoration at the Salon de la Paix at the Hotel de Ville in 1854 – although this was unfortunately lost to a fire in 1871. Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones was also thought to have used the pigment and Art Historian Phillip McCouat reports that the artist’s wife, Georgiana Burne-Jones told the following anecdote revealing how shocked Burne-Jones was when he discovered the provenance of the pigment:

‘Edward scouted [scornfully rejected] the idea of the pigment having anything to do with a mummy — said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.’

Ultimately Mummy Brown fell out of popularity as its exact colour could not be relied upon due to the varied nature of its source material and so was replaced by more stable pigments.

From commodity to museum specimen

By the early twentieth century the ancient Egyptian mummy had been through a number of incarnations as a commodity to be exploited by Europeans from medicine through spectacle to pigment. The development of museums and the increased interest in preserving the past meant that by the mid-twentieth century the unregulated trade in mummies finally became a thing of the past.

If you enjoyed this article take a look at my book How to Skin a Lion for more fascinating outmoded practices. 

Francis Douce’s Mystery Box

Antiquarian Francis Douce (1757–1834) was a passionate collector of books. He initially trained in Law (as his father had before him) but preferred to focus his time on his

Portrait of Francis Douce by James Barry, 1803
Portrait of Francis Douce by James Barry, 1803

scholarly interest in books and manuscripts. To this end he took the position of keeper in the Department of MSS at the British Museum in 1807. Unfortunately his tenure at the museum was not entirely without controversy and he resigned in 1811 after falling out with the trustees. In his (infamous) resignation letter he listed 14 reasons why he had quit his post, including:

 ‘The coldness, even danger, in frequenting the great house in winter.’

‘The total impossibility of my individual efforts, limited, restrained & controlled as they are, to do any real, or at least much, good’

‘The want of society with the members, their habits wholly different & their manners far from fascinating & sometimes repulsive.’

‘The fiddle faddle requisition of incessant reports, the greatest part of which can inform them of nothing, or, when they do, of what they are generally incapable of understanding or fairly judging of.’

After leaving his post at the museum, Douce focused his efforts on building up his collection of antiquarian books and manuscripts and writing scholarly works, most notably Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners (1807) and Dissertation on the various Designs of the Dance of Death (1833).

When Douce died in 1834 he left his vast and valuable book collection of over 19,000 printed works to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Alongside this he bequeathed a mysterious chest to the British Museum with the strict proviso that it remain unopened until 1 January 1900.

Considering Douce fell out with the trustees of the British Museum, and indeed listed his dislike of his colleagues as one of the reasons why he quit, it seemed bizarre that he was now bequeathing that institution anything in his will. But perhaps we can take a clue from the fact that he asked for the box to remain unopened until over 60 years after his death – to me this indicates he still admired the institution but wanted to be sure no one he had previously worked with remained in post.

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The British Museum from Zehn Bilder aus Süd-England oder: Wanderungen und Betrachtungen eines Katholiken, etc. (1877)

Curiosity about the contents of the chest was high but Douce’s wishes were respected and the box remained in storage until the designated date. You can just imagine the excitement on 1 January 1900 as the trustees gathered round, eager to get a first glimpse of the potential treasures within.

Accounts of what happened when the mystery box was finally opened differ, but a look at the British Library’s newspaper database reveals that the public were still clamouring to know, with letters to The Times requesting the British Museum to share what they found and numerous articles in regional and national newspapers in early 1900 speculating over the contents.

One article in the Yorkshire Herald from 10 February 1900 reported that the exact contents were still to be analysed but that:

‘It is generally understood amongst the frequenters of the Reading room and outside literary quarters that nothing from either a literary or antiquarian standpoint was found when the box was opened a few days since. Most of the papers and documents which filled the chest relate to subjects of archaeological import … but so far there is nothing to suggest the reason which induced Mr Douce to desire the chest be kept sealed and its contents unknown for so long.’

Interest in the chest thereafter appeared to wane and the contents was dismissed as nothing valuable, indeed it is thought that the British Museum did not even bother to catalogue what they found, so disdainful were they of its contents. Rumours later emerged that Douce had left a spiteful note inside the chest, as a sort of two fingers up to the British Museum from beyond the grave. But it seems likely this story simply grew up from the disappointing contents of the box and Douce’s antagonistic history with the museum’s trustees.

Despite the anti-climax it seems that although the British Museum saw no merit in the box’s contents the Bodleian Library did. In 1933 they requested that the chest be sent to them in order to reunite it with the rest of Douce’s legacy at the library and today it still resides in their collection. The mystery of its contents now partially revealed by the Bodleian’s catalogue entry for the box which states that it contains ‘Douce’s letters, papers, autobiographical memoranda, commonplace books and unpublished essays.’

Whether or not Douce intended the mystery box to be a trick on the British Museum is difficult to know for sure, but I suspect in fact he just had a slightly over-inflated idea of the importance of his own notebooks. Perhaps he hoped that leaving time to pass after his death would ensure anyone with a grudge against him would also have died, allowing his notebooks and papers to be analysed without bias. Unfortunately for Douce they were indeed analysed without bias, and from the British Museum’s perspective at least, were deemed of little value.

If you liked this post why not check out my books The Book Lovers’ Miscellany and A Library Miscellany.