September 2009

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25 Sep Her Last Letter

Last week the National Library of Scotland offered a week-long opportunity for visitors to see the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, written only a few hours before she was executed at Fotheringay Castle. For preservation reasons, the letter is put on display only rarely.

The letter is directed to her brother-in-law Henri III, the king of France, and dated 8 February, 1587. It closes with the phrase, “Wednesday, at two in the morning.” When you look at the images you can see blurry splotches, particularly on the first page. Was Mary crying? Or are the blotches the product of the many hands through which the letter passed after her death?

The letter itself is remarkably cool and rational, the writing steady, the lines even. What was Mary thinking as she wrote it, in the middle of the night, knowing she would be taken to a scaffold and publicly beheaded when the morning arrived?

Readers and writers of historical fiction don’t always agree about how much of our art should be history and how much should be fiction. This, to me, is a good example. The letter remains; we know Mary wrote it. We have her words. We know something of what she did before and after she wrote it. But what was she truly thinking and feeling? Ah, now that is where the storytelling comes in…

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18 Sep By Request: Lumbago

Early 17th-century drawing of human musculature showing the loins, by Jehan CousinHad a good chuckle at Lisa Brackmann’s comment about why plumbago is called plumbago—“I would have gone with ‘it’s plum-colored and can be used to treat lumbago.’ For that matter, what IS lumbago?”

Ask and you shall receive. The word “lumbago” dates to early in the seventeenth century and comes from the late Latin lumbago, “weakness of loins and lower back,” which itself is from the Latin lumbus, “loin.” Here’s a fellow from an early 17th-century book of “anatomies” [Cousin, Jehan. Livre de pourtraiture. Paris: Jean Leclerc, 1608] who has obligingly taken off his skin to show us his musculature; his loins are indicated by the number 3. For more fascinating historical books of anatomy, see the Research section of the Wonders and Marvels website. I particularly like the ones in which the subject is rather coyly peeling back his or her own skin and muscles in order to display the organs beneath. What were the artists thinking?

“Lumbago” has rather fallen out of use these days, in favor of “Owie! I just threw out my back!” Perhaps we should bring it back. Or perhaps this evening I’ll tell the Broadcasting Legend™ I’m going to cook him a nice lumbus of pork with potatoes, apples and sauerkraut. Mmmm!

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15 Sep Plumbago

The plumbago, or skyflower, growing just outside our back door

Because Rinette, the central character in my new book, is a floromancer deeply connected to flowers and their properties, I find I’m becoming fascinated with everything I can find out about flowers as well.

Take the plumbago bush in our back yard. What a strange name for such a lovely flowering shrub, with its masses of bluish and lilac-colored blossoms, so sweet and irresistible to butterflies. The name comes from the Latin “plumbum,” the metal lead, as dull as dull can be. How on earth did it get connected with such a beautiful flower? (It’s also called skyflower, because of its color, but that’s a modern invention.)

The stories differ. Some say the plant—called for centuries plain “leadwort,” and only given its Latinized name in the eighteenth century—was used to treat lead poisoning, which was recognized as an affliction as early as the second century BC. Others say it was associated with lead because it was used to treat conditions that turned the skin a leaden color. Still others say the plant itself is toxin-loving, and where it grows there is lead to be found. Traditionally it’s also been used to treat warts, wounds and broken bones; made into a powder to be sniffed for headaches; and brewed as a tea to ward off nightmares. Sticks of leadwort were woven into thatched roofs to ward off lightning. In French it was called dentelaire, and the chewed root was said to relieve toothache.

So in the sixteenth century Rinette would have known it as leadwort. How to work it into her unique personal scheme of floromancy? With its association with nightmares, perhaps it could bring on a vision of bad things that might happen if one makes a particular decision. That would certainly fit into the plot. Heh.

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09 Sep Chiaroscuro

Boo with morning sun and telescope

I haven’t posted a beagle picture for a while, so here’s one from this morning: Boudin, sleeping peacefully in front of the back door, striped by the morning sun. He’s lying in one of his favorite spots, the space created by the three legs of my telescope tripod. Boo, the stargazing beagle! What next?

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03 Sep Guilty Pleasures

…having nothing to do with history. Well, maybe only a little.

  • Top Chef. Jennifer Carroll for the win! That chocolate bread pudding with peanut butter sauce sounded delectable, but people—what’s the point of posting a recipe calling for 120 egg yolks and 5 1/2 gallons of heavy cream, which ends up serving 100 people? Cut it down a little. Top Chef website fail.
  • Homemade Apple Crostata. The Broadcasting Legend™ brought home a bag of Granny Smith apples by mistake, and so I’ve been baking up a storm. Delicious as a dessert with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or as a breakfast pastry with a wedge of cheddar cheese. I don’t really follow a recipe—I make piecrust the old-fashioned way (rubbing the butter into the flour by hand) and just mix up the filling as the spirit moves me—sliced apples (skin left on, please), a little lemon juice, a little white sugar and brown sugar, a pinch of salt, a sprinkling of flour to thicken, and of course lots of cinnamon.
  • Attention Deficit Theatre. I love Mad Men and these are the best recaps ever. J. Kristin Ament is a hoot and a half.
  • And speaking of recaps, History Spork, from Two Historians. This comes with a hat tip to the best agent ever, Diana Fox. Needless to say I love historical movies but I sometimes follow along with commentary much like this. Although I’m nowhere near as funny.
  • The Daily Digital. The adventures of my friend Laurie, her husband Philip, and their wonderful beagles. I’m nowhere near as funny as Laurie is, either.