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Notes on History:   Scandinavia in 1572

In Denmark, it's still tradition that on Sankt Hans Aften (Midsummer, June 23), people put a witch into a boat, push the boat onto the water, and set it on fire.  You can see the smoke and flames up and down the coastline.  This photo was taken in 2013 near my aunt and uncle's house in Humlebæk.  See the effect of the rising moon ... Sankt Hans Aften never gets entirely dark.  (These days, the witch is just a mannequin, but imagine in 1572 ...)

Fairy Tales, Medicine, Understanding

Skyggehavn, the royal city


The medicine practiced by physicians in 1572 may sound terrible.  That's because it was.


         Once there was a teenager who wanted to live in the Renaissance.  She loved Shakespeare and historical novels and books with recipes for antiquated foods.  She was lucky enough to be half Danish and to feel a loyalty to the kings and queens she studied in obscure history books, and to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Isak Dinesen.  She sewed authentic costumes for her Barbies (with which she played till a very late age) and had them act out elaborate historical plots.  She tried wearing a corset.  She also read up on magic, and she wrote a novel in a spiral notebook while traveling back and forth on the schoolbus.  It was about three geeky girls who develop special powers.

        Her classmates thought she was strange.  They called her a witch.

         That teenager, of course, grew into me.  A me who still loves everything in that list (including Barbie), though corsets are truly dreadful things to have on.  I still have that passion for the beauties of the Renaissance, triumphs of art, architecture, and literature. But as I grew up and Fate batted me around in its sharp-clawed paws, I became even more interested in the nasty side of life, diseases and poisons and everyday cruelty.  Here was the unseen dark side of the gleaming golden objects and elaborate royal portraits I found in the castles of my mother’s native land. 

         Beauty, darkness, light, and fear … Once again I’ve written a novel about three girlish women on the margins of their society:  the seamstress Ava Bingen, the slave Midi Sorte, and Queen Isabel.  To give them a home, I combined fairy tales and my research into Real History to imagine what life might be like in the city of Skyggehavn. (The name means “Shadows’ Harbor” and is pronounced Skü-geh-hown, to rhyme with down.) This book took seven years to write—a great fairytale number—which strikes a chord with the seven years of war that Scandinavia endured from 1563 to 1570.  For them, it was Sweden against everybody else.  For me it was seven years of reading books and taking trips to Scandinavia and writing something like nine separate drafts. 

        When people asked what I was working on, I would answer, “A fairy tale about syphilis.”  I got nervous smiles in return.  I am still considered weird.  Really, it's shyness.

        Fairy tales are the first stories we remember; the first book I owned was Rumpelstiltskin, which I read to my mum while she was sick.  Fairy tales give us a template for organizing our lives, preparing for the trials of puberty, marriage, and carving a path through the muddled forest of Life.  The heroines we recognize—Cinderella, Gretel, Beauty, Snow White—come from an oral tradition of tale-telling that spreads across continents and back before the Bible.  Their stories are elastic; when a raconteur told a tale, she or he could alter it to suit the audience.

        The fairy tales we know now come in tidy packages, with modern ideas of a beginning, middle, and end.  But the earliest print versions are often ragged little things; the endings we recognize aren’t really endings but trail off into more adventures, many of them even more unpleasant than what we see as the “main story.”  For example, in the Sleeping Beauty recorded by Charles Perrault in 1695, there is no happily-ever-after.  Once the ring is on the heroine’s finger, she has a mother-in-law to deal with—and the woman wants to eat Sleeping’s babies. 

        That’s how Life really works:  Just when you think you’ve reached your darkest hour, you black out completely.  And so those ragged tales are the stories by which Ava and other characters understand their world—and they explain why Ava is so desperate to pause at a pleasant moment, giving herself the kind of ending that we have come to expect in the era of happily-ever-after.

        In 1572, syphilis was a world-shattering disease, one of the worst trials a person might have to endure. Imagine the sudden appearance of an illness that brought painful bony calluses, burning, itching, insanity, blindness, and death.  It was relatively new to Europe, having appeared first when French soldiers invaded Naples, Italy, in 1494/1495.  It was known as “the French disease” or “the Italian disease” until 1530, when Italian poet-physician Girolamo Fracastoro wrote an epic poem about a shepherd named Syphilus, who defies Apollo in the way described herein and who suffers the uncomfortable consequences.

       There are two camps when it comes to determining the disease’s origin.  One side says it came back from the New World with Columbus; this is the theory that Doctor Krolik espouses and the reason he uses sap from an American tree in his attempt at a cure.  The other side (less interesting) says it already existed in Europe but wasn’t really noticed until the French invaded Naples that year and came down with the nasties.  I’ve recently heard yet another hypothesis:  It was a relatively harmless disease among South American llamas, who were used as handy sexual outlets by their herders.  The herders passed it on to their women, and the women passed it to European explorers.  The remedies that physicians tried then, including mercury, were usually poisonous and brought their own set of deadly symptoms.  (Good news, though—syphilis is now easily cured with penicillin.)  Famous sufferers include Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen, who caught it from her husband; Denmark’s mad King Christian VII; and Adolf Hitler.  There really was a doctor in the early centuries who decided to prove syphilis was not a venereal disease by experimenting on his own penis.  Of course, he proved himself wrong instead and died an unpleasant death.

         The medicine practiced by physicians in 1572 may sound terrible.  That’s because it was.  But the drugs and methods that those doctors used were the most sophisticated available, whether they were followers of the ancient Galen (active until about 200 C.E. and still the primary theorist for Renaissance medicine) or of the radical Paracelsus, a fifteenth-century mystic with some decidedly odd ideas.  The notions that I’ve presented—his belief that disease is caused by poison flowing between the stars, a seven-chambered womb with one chamber being reserved for a hermaphrodite—are just the tip of an enormous and teeming iceberg. 

       As strange as these theories seem to us now, they worked at the time.  At least as well as anything people could hope for.  Renaissance physicians would probably be horrified by modern medicine … even though treatments such as chemotherapy for cancer prove Paracelsus’s idea that all things are poisonous and that one poison may cure another. 

        Poisons were, knowingly or not, used to treat a variety of ills.  Caustic antimony, which might eat away your flesh—mercury, which could drive you crazier than syphilis itself—and all the lists of herbs and flowers that might serve either to make the womb fertile for a baby or else to expel one if the woman wasn’t ready for a child.  Abortion was a crime in 1572, but it was also a necessity that might save a woman’s life or ensure she didn’t have more mouths to feed than she had gruel to put in them.  Wisdom about abortifacient substances and birth control has been passed down as long as humans have been in existence.

       Every medicine, remedy, and procedure I’ve presented here was used in the way described.  Nicolas applies the medicinal properties of gemstones in an unusual way, but why not?  Yikes.

         Poor Queen Isabel.  Who wants to have a pelvic exam attended by so many doctors, servants, and ladies?  I was somewhat merciful to her, though, as it was not unheard of to have male officers of the court present as well.  There was simply no privacy for a royal in those days (and precious little of it now).  You were never supposed to leave a king or queen alone for a minute—no telling what some enemy might do if the queen were caught alone, for example.  Hence the practice of having maids and ladies sleeping in bed with the queen and on the floor around her. 

        And hence the custom of having an advisor and confidant watch the king take an “ahem.”  No one knows how that tradition began, whether with a doctor who was supposed to monitor health or with a soldier who was supposed to prevent attacks.  By the time of England’s Henry VIII, however, it was an established routine and a great honor for the lucky lord appointed to be Groom of the Stool.  Given how much Henry ate, I imagine he spent much more time on his stool (which I’ve seen at Hampton Court Palace) than Christian Lunedie—even though Christian has a disease of the bowels that causes him much pain and precipitates his death.  Depending on how much you want to see him hurt, you might imagine this mysterious ailment as an abscessed fistula or as chronic Crohn’s Disease, from which Abraham Lincoln probably suffered.

         Christian and Isabel have separate households with different officers.  This was normal in Europe at the time because the king and queen weren’t always together—and they usually weren’t with their children, either.  The same protectiveness that meant a total lack of privacy also meant it was considered best to split up the family and farm the children out to lords and ladies in the countryside.  That way no one could attack and kill them all at once.  In Skyggehavn, disease has kept the family together longer than was typical.

         As to the other family in the novel, the Bingens—it is unfortunate that relatively little is known about “ordinary” lives, because I find them the most fascinating of all.  How would I have lived in 1572?  Neither my father’s ancestors, who were Slovenian tavern-keepers, nor my mother’s Danish fisherpeople were nobility (though my grandmother did know Isak Dinesen). 

         And the girl without a family, Midi Sorte, is one of several slaves who were transported to northern Europe.  While kidnapped people like Midi were bought and sold, other persons of non-European origin were able to live more or less independently; one African became a prominent scholar in Holland.  Non-Europeans were often seen as exotic pets, like parrots or monkeys, though they suffered even crueler treatment than an animal stolen away from its forest.  Think of the American Indians who languished and died at the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England.  And Midi doesn’t even have a name for the country where she was born, as before she ran away she lived a secluded and all but orphaned life in her father’s harem.  One of the most urgent questions for me as I wrote this novel was how she would see this cold kingdom and the treatment she got at Elinor’s hands … and later, Isabel’s.

        In recent decades, scholars have turned more and more to cultural history—basically, the story of how people lived on a regular day as well as during the big events of wars, plagues, and so on.  I’ve spent hours in Copenhagen’s National Museum looking at remnants of material culture (objects used).  A knitted boot or a needle case shaped like a baby can say so much more than even the best-chosen words, though I obviously love the words too.  There’s nothing like seeing the things people actually touched: a lacelike ivory puzzle-ball that holds infinite smaller versions of itself inside; worn-down paintbrushes made of horsehair; rusted spectacles kept in a wooden carrying case.

         Telescopes, or perspective glasses as they were called long ago, did not wait for Galileo’s invention.  His telescope was just another refinement of a series of devices that scholars had long been working on to bring the sky closer.  Even in classical times, people used globes filled with water as magnifiers, and lens grinders experimented with contraptions made of glass and steel, eventually mirrors.  The first mostly modern telescope was invented by spectacle makers in the England of the 1580s. So it’s thanks to what we’d call optometrists that we’re able to study the moon and stars.

         On November 2, 6, or 11 (accounts vary), 1572, Europeans were astonished to find a supremely bright star shining in the night sky.  We know it now as Tycho Brahe’s supernova; Brahe was a Danish astronomer who gave the most thorough known account of the star’s appearance and gradual demise, though of course everyone was able to see it.  The new star changed forever the way people thought of the heavens and even of religion, as the skies had previously been thought to be unchanging.  So the effect on Skyggehavn is an accurate depiction of scholarly and popular response.  The supernova grew fainter as months passed, and it eventually disappeared sometime in 1574 … but it revolutionized astronomy.

         The new star was hard to explain, though plenty of people tried, with a wide spectrum of ideas.  Many of them involved magic.  Virtually every European—in fact, every soul around the world—believed in what we would call magic.  For example, Duke Magnus of Östergötland really was known as Mad Magnus because he jumped out of a castle window to try to catch a mermaid he’d glimpsed in the moat.  (Honestly, some of this stuff no novelist would dare to make up!)  He did end up a raving lunatic, but in 1572 his madness was in remission, partly because others believed in mermaids too.  You can’t be insane unless other people paste the label on.

       Whether it concerned a saint’s biography or a fairy tale, a way of reading Fate in the stars or a cure in a rhinoceros horn, the most devout Christians and learned scientists believed in things we’d consider impossible.  They just did—in the same way as we believe in quantum physics, though very few of us have seen proof that it really explains the world.  We follow whatever theory works for our era.

        History is whatever we believe; history itself is a fairy tale.  Story and truth can be anything we dream of. 

In the end (this ending), any philosophy of truth is like a fountain flowing with mercury, a quicksilver distraction that reflects whatever the individual wants to see in it.  It is intoxicating and it is dangerous, and it goes beyond concrete facts to lift us out of ourselves.

        And yes, Renaissance lords really did create fountains that ran with quicksilver.  They did so because the mercury was beautiful.


The travelogue is a bit I wrote early on, imagining the way a sailor would arrive in the city of Skyggehavn, which was a center of trade in the north--for sugar, spices, whale oil, amber, slaves.  It hints at the origins of the character Midi Sorte, who is a young girl, mute and enslaved, working among the sick children in the royal nursery.

     This section is not in the book itself--read it here only!



     By the time a ship reaches the capital city, the locusts aboard it have died; likewise the Persian moths and the Arabian sand flies, robber flies, and weevils, the Turkish ground beetles and the Egyptian scarabs.  These stowaways from warmer climes are typically of delicate constitution. 

     The fleas, ticks, and lice, however, are sailors by nature, each having traveled several leagues by now. Their ancestors may have hopped on and off this ship from some other land, taking a tour of the world’s spices and sweeteners as filtered through the rich medium of human blood. If they have no animal host, they stick themselves to the rigging or squeeze into the cracks of barrels, clutch burlap sacks and coils of rope.

     These humble bugs have no relatives on the kingdom’s first islets.  These are rocky outcroppings without so much as a dandelion or a squirrel.  Any who jump off here will perish.

     Until this point, the seamen have time to slap and scratch their insect companions at will.  But when the lips of the bay close around the hull, the waves grow gentler, rocking the ship in place.

     Once fully inside, the sailors often find it necessary to haul out the oars and row toward anchor, though by this time—as they are fond of saying—the bay’s mermaids have usually seized hold of the rudder and are propelling the vessel forward. 

     Now only the captain (scratching absently at his crotch) has the luxury of standing at the prow and listening to the subtle spank of mer-girls’ tails, watching shore approach through his perspective glass.  For the sailors, there is always some chore to be done. Thus their first glimpse of home often comes veiled in sweat, interrupted by the up and down of a neighbor’s back, with no time to address the itch caused by a bite.  It is a good time for insects.

     Once the outside isles have floated past, the cathedral and nearby royal palace begin to rise, looking (as foreign poets have written) like a fantastic sea creature lurking for prey.  Spires bristle at its elbows, its spine, its head.  Then come the red and white wings of towers, and the sprawling body of walls and outbuildings. An iron gate snarls behind the tongue of a dock that looks about to shake sailors loose from their ship and into the creature’s maw—if the mermaids (who have their own palace under the bay) don’t catch and cradle them.

     Most likely, now that the war between neighbors Denmark and Sweden has ended, the ship is a merchant vessel bound for anchor in the deep waters of the bay’s western edge.  There it must unload its cargo into other boats, sometimes so small as to be rowed by a single person. 

    The entire city will pour out to gaze and to finger the wares.

     If, say, the cargo is sacks of Eastern sugar, it will sit in the ship for some hours while the city’s bakers, perfumers, and spice dealers row over to bargain for it.  In this time, it will become riddled with local ants and flies.  The cargo’s owner will sell only a fraction right away, preferring to auction the rest once he’s excited the city’s sweet tooth.  Most of it will travel under armed protection to one of the brick warehouses just inside the city.

     If a nobleman from one of the great houses along Skön Kanal gives orders for a purchase, a lackey rows his steward and cook to the warehouse.  Even a little boat rides low in some places, scraping silt on the bottoms of the smaller canals. The men are aware of eyes upon them:  commoners who are interested in everything the nobles do, or lords and ladies who view each expedition as a move in the eternal jostling for place. Sea birds dive to pick at hats and hair, and the men swat them away. They are conscious of their master’s livery and the emblem painted on the brow.

     Inner Skyggehavn is difficult to navigate, an irregular net of canals that both separate and connect the city’s many small islands. Land and water have made an uneasy peace, and the city is always changing. Islands rearrange themselves overnight; ground gives way in one spot to thrust up in the next.  A hot spring can push forth a finger for a trickle one day, a stream the next, a canal in its own right on the third.  Skyggehavners like to claim that the witches and mer-people who first founded the city continue to stoke a furnace in the earth and that these buildings are the work of those original inhabitants. Men also make a difference; landholders are known to build at night, extending a house or shop to the point of blocking the footways.

     Thus each boat must find its own course.  It might pass through the amber-handlers’ district, where the air is syrupy with the smell of heated stone.  Or the bookbinders’, crackling with the sound of turned pages.  The stinking tanners’, the yeasty breadmakers’, the ungodly stench of the fishmarket.  The glassmakers’ district, built on the most stable patch of ground, where the air shimmers and an artisan’s house might feature a stone head, perhaps listing to the right, with a pair of glass-and-steel spectacles perched on its nose to advertise its owner’s trade.  

     At the warehouse, the sugar merchant has a steward and guards of his own, too, and he demands a good price—especially if he knows of some event at which the noble wishes to make a good showing. Cakes and false fruits, even plates and goblets, might be made of sugar refined and spun; it could coat an almond or cobweb a ham.  It could take the shape of any imaginative fancy, perhaps a pair of swans so fragile they melt at the whiff of a first wondering breath.

     The haggling over a few pounds of raw, pale brown stuff (in which the ants have blissfully died and buried themselves) might take hours.  If it has already been refined to white, chances are it is too precious for any but the most important courtiers, whose wealth has little purpose other than to buy greater favors, more elaborate honors.  These are the clients that merchants like best.

     Perhaps the courtier wishes to make an especially striking impression with a gift for the royal family.  He—or she, why not—might then come in person to ask if other wares have come from abroad. 

     The people of this kingdom are fascinated by beautiful things (as all peoples claim to be), and among what they find most beautiful are the bodies of women from South and East and West. 

     Sometimes a captain or a shipowner out for adventure has acquired one of these women and is now willing to part with her. They are the sweet, musky prizes of trade, the ideal vehicles for a sugar treat. With skins untinted by the white lead and red cochineal (another beetle) favored by the city’s ladies, these come in as many shades as the amber that has made the city famous: oak, honey, lemon, clay.  Their eyes are brown or green. Almost all have black hair.

     Imagine the effect of sugar crystals sparkling on dark locks, skin, and lips that smile as they offer some perfect token of the subject’s regard.  A golden casket with a ruby key from Persia, an Italian goblet with an emerald monogram, a wax baby from France clothed in Chinese silk.  A purple plum held between the teeth and presented through glistening lips to celebrate a triumph in the war.

     It is impossible not to be moved at such a sight.  It is impossible not to pay through the fingernails, for the price will be known along with the gift, and the royal Lunedies are not best pleased by frugality.

     So money changes hands—for the sugar, the woman, the silks to clothe her, the metals and jewels and scents that make this court the grandest in the North.  And another voyage is financed.

     When the wind sweeps the deck of the ship at anchor, the hollow bodies of insects that could not survive the journey swirl up to settle, some yards away, on the heaving water.  Eventually they will be ground into the sand of the bay, from there to be refined into the city’s glass, its brick, its thin, infertile soil.



This section is not in the book itself--read it here only!

Frederiksborg Palace, once of the inspirations for the court at Skyggehavn

jolly woman, sculptural detail at Stirling Castle in Scotland

a palace Great Hall, now without a roof--the enormous space at the back is the triple fireplace

a favorite alleyway in Venice at night ... I love the putto's head poking out of the wall ...



SINCE 1372
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