Friday, January 10, 2014

Rituals, or: the latter day baptism of Countess Isabel

Update, Sept. 2014: Wow, look how testy Project Gutenberg got about "in-lining" an image from their copyright-free site! Did I not "copy the image and host it on" my site? Remind me not to go there again. I don't want to discommode anyone.

Ritual: what you do routinely, as in, performing rites.

Graduation parties, for example. Where do all the young girls get their wondrous figures, set off to perfection in the season's lacy and fluttery, or stark and column-like, dresses? Where do they get their dainty, straight feet, shod in Greek-style thong sandals, each toenail painted a charming pink? My current reading -- apart from The World of Jeeves, since one must always have some Wodehouse in hand -- is The Evolution of Fashion, by Florence Mary Gardiner (1897). She writes:
Gossamers belong to the young, with their dimpled arms, shoulders of snowy whiteness, and necks like columns of ivory. Their eyes are brighter than jewels, and their luxuriant locks need no ornament save a rose nestling in its green leaves, a fit emblem of youth and beauty.
Now Project Gutenberg, where you will find Miss Gardiner's book, is full of a lot of commonplace stuff that has been forgotten for a reason; but sometimes it does serve its purpose in preserving fine old writing from a fine old day; from the days when (apparently) random ladies with good brains and the time and energy to sit down to work, did so. They liked to instruct their readers in the pleasures and enhancements of life especially. They are quite no-nonsensical, whether their subjects are garden advice or Italian cookery or, as with Miss Gardiner, our duty:
And to look our best and, above all, grow old gracefully, is a duty which every daughter of Eve owes to humanity. The manner in which so many women give way early in life is simply appalling. While still in the bloom of womanhood they assume the habits and dress of decrepitude ... indifferent to the charms of maturity, they take to knitting socks in obscure corners, and assume an air of self-repression and middle-agedness .... Why should these women sink before their time into a slough of dowdyism and cut themselves off from the enjoyments civilisation has provided for their benefit?
Why indeed? Then again, Florence Mary had the advantage of writing in an era when one of the charms of a civilised maturity was that you got to graduate to velvets and brocades when gossamer-and-net youth was over. We for our poor part graduate from jeans to jeans. And she had pictures of the still more interesting fashions of still more previous eras. What you see below is not 1897.


From Effigy of Countess of Arundel in Arundel Church.

From Effigy of Countess of Arundel in Arundel Church.

I think in another life I must have been this Countess of Arundel, if only for the sake of the headdress. Maybe you were too. After all, when it comes to time travel, who wants to be anything but a countess or grander? And if you don't care for this particular head gear, be assured there were many la Arundels to choose from in English history. They all wore great clothes. If we turn to Google as a sort of table of contents, we see that searching "countess of Arundel" turns up a blue-fonted list of fine, rich names: Eleanor, Alice, and Elizabeth (14th century); Anne and Alethea (turn of the 17th); Joan (15th -- is this she of the headdress?); and my favorite, Isabel le Despenser (14th, again). Isabel's boasting a surname seems to imply she had more of an identity than a thousand other medieval women -- or men, for that matter -- who were simply a vanished Alice or John. One imagines her somehow vaguely and busily "dispensing" things.

It turns out our Isabel did have an identity and an experience rather out of the ordinary, but it was not the sort that a time-traveling 21st century American would want to share for more than a day. Born the great-granddaughter of a king, married off for her family's political advantage at the age of about nine, our Isabel lived through -- I won't say she witnessed, because I hope she did not -- her father's unimaginably grotesque execution (google "Hugh le Despenser the Younger" for the ritual) when she was fourteen, and gave birth to one son when she was fifteen. At nineteen, she became a countess upon her husband's succeeding to his own father's title of Earl of Arundel.

It seems the couple never got along. There were no more children, and when after another dozen years the new Earl had the marriage annulled, he claimed as grounds that he and Isabel had both renounced their vows at puberty but, as teens, had been "forced by blows to cohabit." Once free he married again, which accounts for "Eleanor" standing among those several 14th-century countesses' names in the blue-fonted Google list. Once free, our Isabel retired to a whole set of manors her ex-husband gave her, while the new lady -- the women were first cousins -- started a big family. This was in 1344. Isabel was about thirty-two years old. Four years later came the Plague.

Not being a very professional, Patent-Roll-consulting, British-Library-Reading-Room historian, I cannot tell you with certainty much more about her -- nor can anyone, it seems -- nor when she died. Wikipedia lists a death date of 1356, aged about forty-four, but the do-it-yourself family research site called Geni affirms she died in 1371, when she would have been about fifty-nine. In either case she would have survived the Plague. Very professional historical novelist Susan Higginbotham, in her article "Divorce, medieval style," helps the matter along by tracing the later life of Isabel's one son, Edmund, bastardized and disinherited after his parents' annulment. His place as heir was necessarily usurped by a younger half-brother. Since historians only consult documents and call speculation what it is, it's the legal documents about him that provide the shadowiest hints, speculations, regarding his mother:  
"In November 1377, the new earl [the younger half-brother] complained that Edmund Arundel and his servants had broken his closes and houses at High Rothyng, Ouesham, Childescanefeld, Yenge Margarets, and Wolfhampton, fished at High Rothyng, taken fish, money, and goods, and assaulted his servants. These manors were the ones that had been granted for life to Edmund’s mother, Isabella, following the annulment; perhaps Isabella had died and Edmund was trying to claim them for himself. The result was a stay in the Tower...."
So, "perhaps Isabella had died" sometime before 1377. In 1371, then? Geni says so. What is most curious about Geni is that it adds one more milestone to Isabel le Despenser's scarifying fourteenth-century life. She was baptized at the Salt Lake City Temple on September 13, 1932. 

I kid you not. We started out talking about rituals, remember? and girls in pretty dresses at ritual graduation parties, and the grand clothes of yesteryear, and Our Duty to Humanity to grow old gracefully a la Florence Mary Gardiner, 1897. Another ritual exists, -- unique to the Mormon church -- namely the researching one's ancestors, so that one may perform for them the "ordinances" that will "enable them to be taught the gospels in the spirit world" and so be included today, "sealed," in their actual family's redemption and eternal life.

In other words someone in Salt Lake City in 1932, I dare say some romantically minded woman, decided that Isabel le Despenser was her ancestress, and had her baptized a Mormon at her death-age (so to speak) of fifty-nine. I would be pleased to know why the Anonymous chose 1371, and exactly how, today, one claws one's way back into the Family History Library, or the Tabernacle archives, or the Temple archives in Salt Lake City, to find out who this person was and what documents she had at her elbow to persuade her of her relation to Isabel. Because really, beyond a certain point "family" research just becomes arithmetically silly. Go back a mere four generations and you already have sixteen direct ancestors, eight of whom you might happily call "Great-great-great grandma" if they were alive. Go back further, and you encounter such hordes of progenitors as can only be commensurate with pond life. Or people.

And while it's a beautiful idea that one may rescue one's ancestors and bring them back with Christ and his church into an eternal family circle, still the pond life problem remains there, too. I'm afraid we're all descended from everyone. Yet most people who ever lived have left no record. If the Mormon church is serious about redeeming the dead, it ought to proclaim a blanket ancestral rescue of all humanity. Otherwise, there's no one to find in the Patent Rolls and the State Papers except countesses and kings. And even if there were, no one researches his family tree to find out he had a many-times-great-grandfather who emptied the slops at Arundel castle. Excited commenters on Despenser history blogs (they exist) innocently gush that they "just found out they are descended from!" an Edward or a Philippa, or a wicked Despenser. I know! By the way, in life these great folk would have taken one look at the heresies of the 21st century and subjected us all to the most scarifying rituals.

Now dear things, after our long weekend dissertation, let us refresh ourselves with a recipe. Here is something from the 14th-century Forme of Cury, which we consulted just a little while ago for our pre-Tudor beans. We must imagine our Countess Isabel sitting down to this sophisticated little dish of rice seethed in broth, finished with almond milk ("and do thereto"), and colored with saffron and salt. "Of fleshe" perhaps meant the ryse was to be served with meat, or that the broth for cooking was a meat stock. I like the command to "messe forth."

Ryse of fleshe

Take Ryse and waishe hem clene. and do hem in erthen pot with gode broth and lat hem seeþ wel. afterward take Almaund mylke and do þer to. and colour it wiþ safroun an salt, an messe forth.

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