First off, darlings, you have my sincere apologies — the holidays caught up to me and this entry is a day later than I would like. I hope you can forgive me. I also hope your holiday was restful and that you have time for yourself between now and the new year.
“Women do have babies in the sixteenth century,” I said mildly. “Besides, I don’t feel any different. I can’t be more than a few weeks pregnant.”
As you might know from our episode on this chapter, this argument between Matthew and Diana is really difficult to stomach. They’re both a little bit right and a little bit wrong, but the effect is painful for anyone who loves them and wants their relationship to succeed.
Matthew isn’t wrong to be worried about Diana carrying the child to term in Tudor England — at that time, approximately one in three women died during their child-bearing years. At the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s birth in 1533, women were encouraged to write wills before delivering children. Bearing healthy children was difficult for women of all classes, but aristocratic and noble women (like Diana) were often blamed for their perceived inability to produce viable male children. Patriarchy being, well, especially virile during Tudor times, the leading medical treatises viewed women as “incomplete” men and the popular advice on childbirth was accordingly… compromised.
Unlike modern women, women in Tudor England lacked reliable pregnancy tests and prenatal care. Women generally realized their pregnancy after several months of missed menstrual cycles — it sounds straightforward enough, but it’s a dodgy thing when your menses are already affected by other factors, such as your age or your access to good nutrition. You could, of course, rely on other methods, such as asking the putative father whether he felt “sucking or drawing” during sex. Oy.
In an age that placed great stock in the legitimacy and survival of heirs, noble and aristocratic families often went to great pains to prepare for childbirth. Society expected women to confine themselves to the indoors for the latter part of their pregnancy to avoid diseases that could affect mother and child. This seems reasonable… until you realize that one of the greatest threats to women and children was sepsis and staph infection carried (unwittingly) between new parents by physicians and midwives.
For further reading about childbirth and the Renaissance, I recommend the following:
“Religious books are popular gifts, and easy to sell. Books about medicine have a smaller audience and are too costly to bind without a commission.” Matthew explained as I fingered the limp covering. He handed me yet another volume. “Luckily, I had already ordered a bound copy of this one. It’s hot off the presses and destined to be a bestseller.”
Matthew presents Diana with a bound copy of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a prose romance that the poet dedicated to his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Sir Philip Sidney died in 1586 of a leg wound that turned gangrenous after the Battle of Zutphen. Arcadia was incomplete at the time of Sidney’s death — the story apparently left off in the middle of a sword fight — but Fulke Greville published an early version of the story in 1590. You can meander through an early copy of Arcadia via the British Library’s website.
My initial reluctance to meet Mary Sidney faded as our rendezvous approached. The more I remembered–and discovered–about the Countess of Pembroke, the more excited I became.
Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), made a name for herself as a patron of the arts and a poet in her own right.
According to the Poetry Foundation, she skillfully navigated the strictures against women’s writing “by focusing on religious themes and by confining her work to the genres thought appropriate to women: translation, dedication, elegy, and encomium.”
The Countess of Pembroke’s success was also boosted by her dedication to finishing the work of her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, upon his death. She used her rank and influence to form the Wilton Circle, the “most important literary circle” in the history of England. The Wilton Circle included literary greats such as Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Sir John Davies, and Samuel Daniel. The Countess believed in the power of the English language at a time when many believed that English was inferior to the classics of Italian, French, Latin and Greek. The Countess translated a number of important works into English, including Petrarch’s “The Triumph of Death” and Philippe de Mornay’s “Discours de la vie et de la mort.” In addition to the biography of Mary Sidney in The World of All Souls, I recommend her profile published by the Poetry Foundation.
“Baynard’s Castle was built to be approached from the river, Diana,” Henry said in an apologetic tone as we traveled down another winding lane. “This is the back entrance, and not how visitors are supposed to arrive — but it is a great deal warmer on a day like this.”
Baynard’s Castle, built in the 11th century on the banks of the Thames, enjoyed a long and glorious history before it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. You can see its outlines on the fabulous Agas Map of Early Modern London and see how it dominated the river front between the Blackfriars and Poles Wharf.
Baynard’s Castle was one of three stone castles built on the River Thames after the Norman conquest. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, passed the residence to the Crown upon his death and it became the royal residence of Henry VI. Henry VIII gave the castle to Catherine of Aragon on the eve of their marriage; it later passed to his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, and then to her brother-in-law, the Earl of Pembroke. The property passed to the Earl’s son, Henry, Second Earl of Pembroke, who took Mary Sidney as his third wife in 1577.
A London Inheritance has a fascinating little article on the excavation of the site that once housed Baynard’s Castle. I imagine that it gives you a bit of glimpse into what it was like for Diana to return to modern London in The Book of Life.
“I forget, you have not met my wife. Diana, this is Nicholas Hilliard, the limner.”
Nicholas Hilliard is well-covered in both the Real-Time Reading Companion and The World of All Souls, but it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the art of limning. Limning refers to the execution of portraits in miniature on vellum, card, copper, or ivory. The name of the art form derives from the use of “minium,” or red lead, common in medieval illumination. Artists like Hilliard produced miniature portraits in watercolor on small tokens exchanged by friends and family. In the age before photography, miniatures were sometimes used in marriage negotiations to showcase the beauty and character of a potential bride.
Miniature portraits are extremely complex — painters used tiny brushes and minuscule amounts of paint to produce highly-detailed, personalized works of art for private collection and display. For especially complicated portraits, Hilliard used to have the clothing of the sitter brought to his studio separately so that he could study its textures and materials — he believed that long portrait sessions were tiring and that limning was extremely delicate, demanding work for the artist.
“Well, well, well,” Matthew interrupted with a chuckle. “My wife has arrived.” I looked at him in confusion. “Mary’s most treasured project is not alchemical but a new rendition of the Psalms for English Protestants. Her brother Philip began it and died before it was complete.”
Here is Psalm 51, by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke:
O Lord, whose grace no limits comprehend;
Sweet Lord, whose mercies stand from measure free;
To me that grace, to me that mercy send,
And wipe, O Lord, my sins from sinful me.
Oh, cleanse, oh, wash, my foul iniquity;
Cleanse still my spots, still wash away my stainings,
Till stains and spots in me leave no remainings.
For I, alas, acknowledging do know
My filthy fault, my faulty filthiness
To my soul’s eye incessantly doth show,
Which done to thee, to thee I do confess,
Just judge, true witness, that for righteousness
Thy doom may pass against my guilt awarded,
Thy evidence for truth may be regarded.
My mother, lo, when I began to be,
Conceiving me, with me did sin conceive:
And as with living heat she cherished me,
Corruption did like cherishing receive.
But, lo, thy love to purest good doth cleave,
And inward truth: which, hardly else discerned,
My truant soul in thy hid school hath learned.
Then as thyself to lepers hast assigned,
With hyssop, Lord, thy hyssop, purge me so:
And that shall cleanse the lepry of my mind.
Make over me thy mercy’s streams to flow,
So shall my whiteness scorn the whitest snow.
To ear and heart send sounds and thoughts of gladness,
That bruised bones may dance away their sadness.
Thy ill-pleased eye from my misdeeds avert:
Cancel the registers my sins contain:
Create in me a pure, clean, spotless heart;
Inspire a sprite where love of right may reign
Ah, cast me not from thee; take not again
Thy breathing grace; again thy comfort send me,
And let the guard of thy free sprite attend me.
So I to them a guiding hand will be,
Whose faulty feet have wandered from thy way,
And turned from sin will make return to thee,
Whom turned from thee sin erst had led astray.
O God, God of my health, oh, do away
My bloody crime: so shall my tongue be raised
To praise thy truth, enough cannot be praised.
Unlock my lips, shut up with sinful shame:
Then shall my mouth, O Lord, thy honor sing.
For bleeding fuel for thy altar’s flame,
To gain thy grace what boots it me to bring?
Burt-off’rings are to thee no pleasant thing.
The sacrifice that God will hold respected,
Is the heart-broken soul, the sprite dejected.
Lastly, O Lord, how so I stand or fall,
Leave not thy loved Zion to embrace;
But with thy favor build up Salem’s wall,
And still in peace, maintain that peaceful place.
Then shalt thou turn a well-accepting face
To sacred fires with offered gifts perfumed:
Till ev’n whole calves on altars be consumed.
We’ll continue our real-time reading tomorrow as Diana runs errands in Tudor London. In the meantime, we hope you’re taking advantage of the sneak peek of Episodes 1 and 2 of A Discovery of Witches TV on Sundance Now and Shudder. We’d love if you popped by our Facebook group to share your excitement or sent us an e-mail at email@example.com. We hope to see you there!
Cait and Jen