How the 17th century rocks your world

In reading last year's historical fiction reader survey by M.K. Tod, I was shocked to learn that the 17th century ranks 7th among time periods readers are most likely to choose. Shocked, I say! Because the 17th century is just so fascinating. In the words of J.P. Sommerville, University of Wisconsin history professor, the 17th century is "probably the most important century in the making of the modern world. It was during the 1600s that Galileo and Newton founded modern science; that Descartes began modern philosophy; that Hugo Grotius initiated international law; and that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke started modern political theory."

See what I mean? Just little things like these happened in the 17th century. But wait, there's more!

King_Charles_I_after_original_by_van_Dyck

"The Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and others, all struggled to maintain and extend colonies and trading-posts in distant corners of the globe, with profound and permanent consequences for the whole world," Somerville wrote.

It was a time of tremendous turmoil and brilliant discovery:

  • The little ice age was particularly cold, creating chaos and famine
  • The Thirty Years War raged across Europe from 1618 to 1648
  • England's bloody civil war defeated a monarchy
  • Science trumped religion for the first time to influence society
  • Agricultural and commercial changes paved the way for the Industrial Revolution

And there were sweeping changes that affect our lives even today:

Architecture. Inigo Jones (the Banqueting Hall) and Christopher Wren (St Paul's Cathedral) introduced magnificent architectural designs in London and throughout England that remain beautiful and influential.

Banking. In England, instead of depositing gold in the king's mint for safety -- where he might confiscate it (as Charles I did in 1640) -- London merchants deposited money with goldsmiths who gave them receipts and promised to pay on demand.

Food. People started eating with forks for the first time. England discovered bananas, pineapples, chocolate, coffee and tea.

Furniture. Chests of drawers became common, and Grandfather clocks popular, followed by a new arrival: the bookcase.

Medicine. Doctors learned how blood circulates around the body, and how to treat malaria with bark from the cinchona tree.

And of course, there were the scandals:

  • John_Wilmot

    The murder of Buckingham

  • The execution of Charles I
  • The attempted assassination of Cromwell
  • The numerous mistresses of King Charles II
  • The indecent antics of the Earl of Rochester

Personally, I am digging deeply, fascinated by the greed, intrigue, rebellion, atrocities and resilience that took place in Ireland. Fascinating stories abound.

Yes, I am shocked that anyone might find another century more alluring. Not me.

 

SharavogueCoverEmbark on an adventure in Irish history -- 17th century, that is, with Sharavogue, and my upcoming novel, The Prince of Glencurragh. Available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and iBooks. Find out more at nancyblanton.com

 

Historical research goes anorexic

One of the characters in the novel I'm writing now will sicken and die within a year. It's sad, I know, but life expectancy in the 17th century averaged at around 35 years, so death tends to play a big role in stories from that time. Cause of death data from 17th century

I had planned for this character to die from tuberculosis or "consumption" as they called it, which was the number-one killer at the time. This research in itself was fascinating, because there exists a list of death causes from the time including the "King's Evil," "plague in the guts," and "teeth and worms."

But I soon learned that people with untreated TB can suffer for five to 10 years before they succumb. That would not work for this character. Then I stumbled upon an unexpected 17th century disease, anorexia.

Like many people, I had thought anorexia a fairly modern disease that was all about body image. I was wrong on both counts. Physicians were recording anorexic symptoms in the 17th century. And, it is not really about body image, it's about control:

To understand anorexia you need to remove the misconception and preconception that this mental disorder is entirely about the need to be thin. The following are a few of the other factors that contribute to eating disorders:

  • A strong desire to feel in control of one aspect of a life that is difficult or out of control, or a need to feel in control of a life that is controlled by others
  • A strong desire to be perfect
  • Past emotional abuse or negative comments about image from others
  • Depression can lead individuals to believe that there is no need to continue eating, or they may get too wrapped up in their depression to remember to eat much
  • Dancers, performers and athletes are often under great pressure to lose weight so that they can attain levels of unrealistic and perceived perfection

    (http://www.gethelpforeatingdisorders.com/the-mindset-behind-anorexia)

In the 17th century, physicians called the symptoms they were seeing "nervous atrophy" or "consumption." A post by Julie O'Toole covers the documentation in a clinic blog post. In 1689, a doctor describes working with both female and male patients with similar symptoms. He calls it a "distemper" of the nervous system which destroys the nerves and causes a "wasting of the body."

From a 1689 treatise by Richard Morton, on Google Books

His female patient, who was having "fainting fits," tried all of his remedies, including aromatic bags and plasters applied to the stomach, to no avail. She eventually tired of his treatments and begged to let nature take its course.

She died three months later.

The male, son of a clergyman, "fell gradually into a total want of appetite, occasioned by his studying too hard and the passions of his mind." He advised the patient to abandon his studies, take the country air, and go on a milk diet. The patient regained his health at least temporarily, but was not cured of the disease.

I am fascinated by this case study, and it opens up new thinking for me. The character in my story is likely to suffer similarly to the female patient, but I now have a better way of describing the mindset of this disease, to present it more accurately to readers. It also adds an interesting layer of complexity to the story that I had not realized before, and I can't wait to unravel it.

I also have two dear friends whose daughters nearly lost their lives to this terrible disease. Fortunately, those girls were able to overcome it. The fear and pain the families suffered was unimaginable. Through story, readers can gain a better understanding of the impacts of this disease.

The book underway has the working title of Glencurragh, and is slated for publication in 2016.

SharavogueCoverIn the meantime, read Sharavogue, a novel of 17th century Ireland and the West Indies, available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, indiebound.com, and also on iTunes for iBooks.

It's a fast-paced historical adventure with a strong female lead. Happy reading!

Stories of Death by Construction

Have you ever heard a story of construction workers who died on the job being buried as part of the structure they were building? One of the first stories I heard was of men entombed within the Brooklyn Bridge. Apparently this is a myth, because a decaying body embedded in a concrete structure would then make that structure unstable. However, author David McCullough estimates 27 people were killed in various accidents or safety issues during the bridge construction. Image of a walled town from the Cork City Library

I became curious about these myths after I happened across one story recently while researching the upcoming prequel to my historical novel Sharavogue. Call it serendipity, it was one of those magical, unexpected discoveries that make researching history fun, while providing genuine detail to spice up a novel. Centuries ago during construction of the enclosing walls for the town of Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, a young man was killed when a fellow mason working on a scaffold above him accidentally dropped his pickaxe. In the 1800s, the site was being excavated to build a summerhouse. When the workers found a large flagstone that gave a hollow sound when struck, they thought (hoped) they might have discovered an ancient stash of gold coins. Instead they found the skeleton of the poor mason, the pickaxe still under his skull, and his hammer and trowel by his side. In his pocket was a silver coin from the reign of Edward VI.

Little remains of this wall today, but stories live on, right?

Such as the Hoover Dam, where somewhere between 96 and 112 workers were killed between 1931-36. The myth has it that it was too costly to halt construction when a man was killed and so the concrete pour continued. But if this was true, the structure would not have been able to withstand the pressure of all that water over the years.

With the body of water that would become Lake Mead already beginning to swell behind the dam, the final block of concrete was poured and topped off at 726 feet above the canyon floor in 1935. On September 30, a crowd of 20,000 people watched President Franklin Roosevelt commemorate the magnificent structure’s completion. Approximately 5 million barrels of cement and 45 million pounds of reinforcement steel had gone into what was then the tallest dam in the world, its 6.6 million tons of concrete enough to pave a road from San Francisco to New York City. Altogether, some 21,000 workers contributed to its construction.

One story where site burials are not a myth is that of the Fort Peck dam site in Montana. Eight workers were caught in a slide there in 1938, but only two bodies were recovered.

My curiosity produced many stories of human sacrifice during constructions projects, as well as immurement. One from Germany concerned a mother who sold her son to be interred in the foundations of a castle, and then--feeling rather guilty--she threw herself off a cliff.

And a fascinating yet horrifying story is that of the Mole in Algiers, a massive breakwater started in the 16th century by the pirate-king Barbarossa. This structure was intended to provide defense against the Spanish, but the work was constant and relentless, requiring more than 30,000 Christian slaves for labor, and costing the lives of 4,000 slaves, or about five lives per foot of structure.

These days, thanks to safety requirements, construction deaths are fewer, workers are paid, and as far as I know are well cared for in case of accidents or deaths. In the US, private industry construction deaths per year are in the hundreds, not thousands. The leading causes of construction deaths are falls, being struck by an object, electrocution, or being caught between things.

I'll be visiting Bandon later this year for a little on-the-ground research, and will say a prayer for that poor mason who died there. Until then, keep it safe out there, and follow this blog for stories about my travels in Ireland starting in June, and for notices of when the new book will be out.

SharavogueCoverAnd in the meantime, embark on an adventure in Irish history! Sharavogue is the award-winning story of a peasant girl who vows to destroy Oliver Cromwell during his march of destruction across Ireland in the 17th century, and her struggle for survival on a West Indies sugar plantation.