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A Brief History of an Obsession: Fashion from Pre-Human to the Rental Box

We’ve apparently been at it for 60,000 years, this fashion thing, this daily obsession with clothing. I’ve always thought of it as a feminist issue: we get paid 80 cents on the dollar and then spend a foolish portion of that on clothing, accessories and make-up, unlike men. Not to mention the Pink Tax that reportedly costs women an extra $1,350 per year because of discriminatory pricing. And it’s always been ‘women’s work’ to create both the fabric and the clothing.

Early Clothing

Surprisingly enough, there’s evidence that we were making clothing before we became modern humans (!) “The oldest example is 60,000 years ago, a needle point (missing stem and eye) found in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. “Sewing needles have been dated to at least 50,000 years ago (Denisova Cave, Siberia) – and uniquely associated with a human species other than modern humans, i.e. H. Denisova/H. Altai. Other early examples of needles dating from 41,000-15,000 years ago are found in multiple locations, e.g. Slovenia, Russia, China, Spain and France. The earliest dyed flax fibers have been found in a prehistoric cave in the Georgia and date back to 36,000.” By 5,000 BC (nearly two millennia before writing) we had become fairly sophisticated at making fabric: “Archaeologists have discovered  Read More 

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Medieval Peasants Had More Vacation Time Than You

Breugel

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of bone crushing drudgery but recently I’ve discovered new research that suggests that the medieval peasant didn’t work even as many hours as we do!

“Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.”  Read More 

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More to Battle the Sexist Assumptions of Paleontologists

Seated Goddess of Catalhoyuk

I am currently reading A People’s History of the World: from the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harmon, and it makes me bristle, again, over many traditional assumptions about human history, human nature, and the position of women:

    • Harmon’s analysis of the Paleolithic period recognizes that for tens of thousands of years humans lived in cooperative groups that were completely egalitarian, with no sign of accumulated wealth or social status. (It’s a fascinating concept that I’ll be digging into later.)

 

    • But Harmon, like many classic authors, suggest that the reason for the oppression of women is due to their relegation to the gathering side of the hunter-gatherer society and their focus on rearing children. We now know that in the Paleolithic era women had children only every 3 to 4 years [Harmon pg. 13] so how is this justification for wholesale exclusion? They just didn’t have children often enough to be taken up entirely with their care.

 

    • Look at the math: Paleolithic groups ranged from 20-40 number of people. 50% were women. Let’s say that 40% of those were of child-bearing age (since life expectancy was short), so how many children were there? Surely not so many that one woman couldn’t supervise them all.

 

    • And why is there an automatic assumption that mothers would only care for children they had borne? Where is the speculation  Read More 

Queen Margaret I of Denmark, The Lady King

Effigy of Queen Margaret 1 from 1423 on her tomb in Roskilde Cathedral

In studying for an upcoming trip, I have come across Queen Margaret I of Denmark, who was the “builder of the greatest personal position ever achieved in Scandinavia.” Ruling in the 1300s, she governed with “farsighted tact and caution.”

Her rise to power came through shrewd diplomacy. Her father, King Valedmar, had agreed that the Danish throne should pass to the son of Margaret’s elder sister Ingeborg, but on her father’s death in 1375 “Margaret scored her first great diplomatic success by inducing the Danish Council to elect her five-year-old son Olav instead.” As regent she displayed “a capacity for the management of men which caused a Hanse [German] representative to describe the turbulent nobility of Denmark as being seized with “respect for that lady’s wisdom and authority, so that they offered her their services.”

Five years later, when her son was 10 years old, he inherited Norway from his father King Haakon VI “whereupon Margaret’s second regency marked the beginning of a Dano-Norwegian Union which was to last for more than four centuries.”

When her son Olav died unexpectedly at 17, “Margaret reacted with astonishing promptitude and resource. Within a week she had been hailed at the Skane landsthing as Denmark’s ‘sovereign lady, master, and guardian,’ and in February 1388 a meeting of Norwegian lords accepted her as their ‘mighty lady and master’ in defiance of the law of succession. Fortified by these testimonies to her skill as a ruler of two kingdoms, she made a treaty in March with the Swedish nobles who…recognized her as Sweden’s “sovereign lady and rightful master.”

Later, she chose her grandnephew, Eric of Pomerania, as hereditary sovereign, with her serving as regent. “Although Eric came of age in 1401, Margaret continued for the remaining 11 years of her life to be sole ruler in all but name.”  Read More 

Empress Deng: A Just and Capable Ruler in Second Century China

In my search for women to write back into history…I’ve discovered three (so far) in The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the Revolutionary Invention, by Alexander Monro.

Monroe is suggesting that the inventor of paper was a Chinese second-century government official named Cai Lun. While Cai is “traditionally credited with inventing paper in A.D. 105… papermaking is in fact at least three centuries older than this, but it was nevertheless Cai who refined paper for more widespread use and who first appreciated the enormous choice of possible ingredients.” However, it was the Empress Deng who rose “up like a conductor and signaled the launch of Cai’s carefully honed substance across China, in a quest to harmonize the country to this new medium.” [Page 13]

“Deng Sui was the granddaughter of a Han prime minister. (Sometimes translated as Chancellor, this was the highest administrative post and involved setting the government budget.) She was born in 81 in Nanyang in the cattle country of the near North. By the age of six she knew Confucius’s Book of Documents and at 12 she had read the Classic of Poetry and the Analects, according to her official biography.  Read More 

New Book Club Guide for A Slender Tether

Description of the book: Amid the violent weather of Europe’s Little Ice Age, A Slender Tether offers three compelling tales of self-discovery, woven into a rich tapestry of 14th century France. Christine de Pizan, daughter of a disgraced court physician and astrologer, grapples with her ambition to be the first woman writer of France. A doctor finds an unusual way to cope with the death of his wife. And opportunity alternates with disasters in the life of four commoners, yoked by necessity: a papermaker struggling to keep his business, a falconer with a mysterious past, a merchant’s daughter frantic to avoid an arranged marriage, and a down-on-his-luck musician with a broken guitar and the voice of an angel.

Discussion Questions:

“Raptor Among the Bluebirds”

1. Christine de Pizan works in the library where there was not a single volume written by women. How do you imagine she would feel as a result? Have you ever felt alienation at this level or exclusion?

2. It has been documented that Christine’s father was more supportive of her scholarship and desire to write than her mother. What do you think the mother’s motivation  Read More 

A Salute to Our Stone Age Sisters

Studying history means actively looking for surprises, despite the fact that it is focused on events from centuries and even millennia in the past. And I know enough to understand that “progress” through history is not a consistent march uphill but a journey during which we have frequently gotten lost, sometimes forgetting things for hundreds of years before circling back and re-learning them.

What has surprised me most recently is the number of important concepts and everyday items still in use that were developed in the Stone Age – the Paleolithic time from 2.7 million years ago up until 10,000 years ago.

Here’s what One Million Years in a Day(1) and other sources say that our Stone Age Sisters knew to create or use:

The sewing needle, the oldest of which dates back 60,000 years , which also means an understanding of the components of all clothing elements – the hat, cape, sleeve and pant; form-fitting boots and shoes; and the geometry to construct them
Linen, developed 30,000 years ago
Jewelry, the necklace, earring (including for pierced ears), bracelet and pouch – 40,000 years ago
Plates, bowls and vessels
Insect repellent and mattresses, “…ancient mattresses were lined with leaves from River Wild-Quince, a tree that naturally produces an insect repellent chemical, and this may have minimized the lethal scourge of malaria.  Read More 

Chicken or Egg? Hobby or Character Development?

Where can I learn to be a blacksmith, I muttered to myself last week, as I decided to put a blacksmith in a new book/project. Might be fun to learn, I thought.

The night before I had packed away my (at this point fairly extensive) collection of chocolate molds and tools, having recently sold my new novel, Straight Uphill: A Tale of Love and Chocolate to Fireship Press.

So it made me wonder: which came first, the desire to learn something like confectionary, or the desire to have a character work in a trade that, for the sake of verisimilitude, I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to master the craft, but I need to know the smell of it, the heat, the feel of the tools in my hand. One can learn the process from a book but there’s so that you have to actually experience.

So, which came first?

I wrote the chocolatiers in Straight Uphill because I was taking on chocolate as a hobby. (I’ve never actually had a hobby. Work, writing, motherhood, relationship, house; that was all I could handle. I had never even asked myself what I might want to do as a hobby, that’s how remote the prospect was.) Chocolates moved from a temporary pastime to a dedicated hobby when I realized that I had just spent hours, transfixed, as I worked with the stuff. The ‘languid quality’ described in the WWII section of the book is how I felt making my first ganache. So, in the case of Straight Uphill, the hobby came first.

I learned to ride a horse for two reasons:  Read More 

New Book Club Discussion Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Book Club Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Description of the book: A historical novel set in Europe 1465 – 1540, The Mandrake Broom dramatizes the courageous fight to save medical knowledge during the witch burning times and answers the question “what if the witches had fought back?” Based on extensive research of historical sources, herbal remedies and the medicines of the time, this novel has been called “is "stunningly good...tremendously involving and impressive." Meet:

Luccia Alimenti, daughter of a medical professor at the University of Salerno, Italy, destined to carry ancient texts and herbal lore into the dangerous and groundbreaking future.

Fiona, her Irish godmother  Read More 

Remove Native American Racist Statues, Too

Justification to remove statues of Civil War generals is straightforward – there are no statues of Hitler in Germany so there should be no statues built to American proponents of slavery. (I was shocked to hear that 35 Confederate statues have been erected in North Carolina since 2000!) And we should take note that the Germans have taken a very thorough approach to removing visual reminders of World War II, as described here.

But I would also join the chorus of voices calling for the removal of statues that celebrate the racial oppression of Native Americans, perhaps starting with “End of the Trail,” a heartbreaking reminder of brutality  Read More