Bits and Pieces of the Past

Debra Brown didn’t begin her life with an interest in history. In fact, she was so busy with other things, she found history dull and boring. How time changes everything. Today she is a historical fiction author and has a blog that allows authors to guest post historical content related to any topic about England. With that in mind, here is her guest post:

I always wish I had realized that history was so deeply entrenched in my heart when I was young. My college courses would have been selected with that in mind, at least some electives. But the topic had been dull for me in school, and I was focused on other things. When at last I began writing historical fiction, I found I had to spend much time researching, perhaps more than many writers of the genre.”

Title Page to The Historians' History of the World

Title Page to The Historians’ History of the World.

What a treat it has been for me to run the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Every night I look over a post about the British past, learning new and fascinating things. At last I am being filled with all that goodness I missed—not just the dates and headline stories, but the details of the lives of peasants, nobles, kings, and queens.

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Deborah Swift wrote “A Proper Education: Stuart Schools”. She brought out about certain boys’ colleges:

For the unfortunate pupils school days began at 6 a.m. and went on until late afternoon when the light was best. Study would be undertaken by means of slates to write on and horn books which the teacher used as text books.

The boys would be severely disciplined for laziness or stupidity in a way we would find unacceptable today. The birch rod was a symbol of a master’s authority as servants were frequently beaten, and it was exactly the same in school. Whether you were an apprentice or at school, you were likely to be on the receiving end of corporal punishment. Flogging was frequent and severe, as it was thought to drive devils from the body. It was thus used for every moral lapse or failing, and the boy would typically have his bottom beaten until blood flowed. Another common punishment was to use a ferula, a flat ruler with a rounded end into which a hole had been cut. This was used to strike the hand or mouth, and the hole brought up a terrible blister.

But we knew that from reading Dickens’ Victorian stories, didn’t we?

Another interesting point was brought out by Grace Elliot. We know people drank a lot of alcohol due to the lack of potable water. Grace, in her article Alcohol and Samuel Pepys: Drunk and Disorderly?, says,

Was the population permanently drunk? Possibly!

However, seventeenth century alcohol wasn’t as strong as the modern-day equivalent. One reason for this was that the yeasts weren’t as hardy as our modern varieties, and they were less tolerant of the alcohol produced during fermentation. This meant that the brews were naturally limited in strength, because once they reached a certain level of alcohol, the yeast died and the process stopped. Incidentally, these yeasts made for a cloudy drink rather than the clear ales and wines of today, but the cloudiness was disguised by metal tankards or frosted glass.

As an aside, the small beer or wine produced was much sweeter than modern brews. Again, this was because the yeast died before all the sugar was converted to alcohol. Also, it is interesting to reflect that grain stores were vulnerable to spoilage by rodents—so the safest way to protect your harvest was to convert it to beer, which preserved the sugar and calorie content! (Don’t forget, sugar was a hideously expensive commodity.)

How good that is to know! Perhaps authors can leave our characters walking a straight line after all. And how were these drinks served? Katherine Pym informs us in her article “Seventeenth Century Trade”,

When Catherine of Braganza came to England, food was eaten out of bowls and trenchers, liquid slurped from horn cups, tankards, two-handled cups, or posset posts (generally called dishes). These were made of earthenware, wood, or tough leather. Porcelain for the general public did not really hit England’s shores until after King James II went into exile.

King William and Queen Mary brought porcelain with them when they came to England to rule. Europe, who had been the recipient of Dutch trading for years, received a further taste for tea, sipped from porcelain and served from lacquer-ware.

As time marched toward the end of the seventeenth century, shiploads of 250,000 porcelain pieces at a time were brought to England. No longer were the habits of good Englishmen as they had been during the Restoration. Breakfasts were then a dish of new beer, bread, Cheshire cheese, or gruel served with a heavy meat. In the early eighteenth century the Tatler stated a breakfast of ‘tea and bread and butter…have prevailed of late years.’

Even though Catherine never gave Charles II an heir, she brought to England a new way of living with the finer things of life. England’s taste became more dignified and refined.

Though Charles Dickens knew the details of his time well writing contemporary fiction, today’s authors must dig and learn how people of a given time lived. How nice that it is interesting enough to be addictive!

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The above quotes are taken from the newly released second volume of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. Fifty authors have contributed intriguing facts in a beautiful format for all lovers of British history to enjoy.

  • Both volumes can be found on Amazon.
  • Kobo carries Volume 2.
  • You can get the 25 hour 40 minute Audiobook of Volume I at Audible and on iTunes.

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