Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Letter M: The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

    Vivien Honeybone bites her thumb at the clodpoles and shrews sauntering through the Faire. Her discerning eye can distinguish between the true and the false. That wanton's corset is poorly constructed; her own is of silk, with boning from Greenberg & Hammer, N.Y.  That strutting cock carries a harquebus but his footgear is of some unknown material from the future. The Time Travelers are here, and Vivien sips her posset in anticipation.
     "Good day, mistress. Might I ask from whence you hail?"
     "Scranton. What's that face stuff you have for sale?"
     Vivien sighs. The Travelers speak with such harsh intonations, nevermind the abominable language.
     "Come here! Let me bewray thou." Choosing a delicate jar which she has painted herself, she carefully lifts the lid to show the contents.
     "Tis a very dear unguent. T'will make a maiden's skin as fine as porcelain."
     "My daughter is into this re-enactment thing. I thought maybe I'd get her some makeup.  Is this the white crap the women have smeared all over their faces in the movies? Like the queen with the big collar?"
     Torn between slapping the lumpish, idle-headed maggot-pie and completing the sale, the paragon of Elizabethan virtue smiles and extolls once again the wondrous effects of her homemade cosmetic.
     "Thy daughter will be enchanted. Red cheeks without blush, smooth skin beyond compare, why..."
     Suddenly overcome, Vivien gropes her way to a stool and sits down. Perhaps her corset stays could stand a loosening. Fainting fits among the women are, of course, a hallmark of the age; the tingling in her hands and feet, however, are a new phenomenon. Perhaps it is related to her advanced age of thirty.
     The Traveler squints at her. "Reckon it's the heat that's gotcha. Wearin' all that stuff." He looks down at his exposed (and very hairy) legs and feet. "Thank God we don't wear that stuff anymore."
     Vivien believes that if the goatish customer bleats "stuff" one more time that she will vomit.
     "Begone, fool." She attempts to wave him away, but her arm flaps wildly and she must capture it with the other.
     "I'll take two. Gotta say, you're really into this whole thing. I hope my Kaitlin does half as good as you do. I know she'll love this cream. Maybe it'll do something for her pimples." He withdraws two bills and lays them on the table. "Dost thou...ummmm... need a visit to the medical tent? My wife could come over here and watch your stuff. We're honest folk."
     There it is. "Stuff!" she shrieks. "Stuff! Thou shouldst be stuffed and mounted and placed by the great hearth for all to gaze upon! Or yet thy hideous head placed upon a wall! Stuff!"
     The Traveler peers at her with a flicker of uncertainty; then, taking his jars, backs away into the crowd, muttering all the while. "Mad as a hatter. Some of these people go a little too far."
     Vivien is horrified at her own loss of control.  She sips a little more of her posset, then begins to pack up her things and load them onto her pony, George. It's a two hour ride back to her stone cottage, the one that she and John had built together so long ago. As teenagers. As inhabitants of the Future themselves.
     She arrives home feeling somewhat better for the fresh air, although traversing the hard-packed dirt filled with shimmering metallic horseless carriages has been a trial. Closeted in her beloved sanctuary, surrounded by the sconces, tapestries and furnishings which had been carefully collected - or handmade - over the years, she smooths out a piece of parchment and begins to collect the ingredients for her Medieval Magic skin cream. Quicksilver, alum, lye...

1. Quicksilver is mercury, today's featured poison. It was used in both medicinal preparations and cosmetics through the centuries. One of the symptoms of mercury poisoning is desquamation or peeling of the skin, hence it's use as a sort of 'chemical face peel'. Another is reddening of the cheeks. It also causes neurological damage.
2. A recipe for a face preparation from the time period. 
  "take pure silver and quicksilver and, when they are ground in the mortar, one adds ceruse and burnt rock alum, and then for a day they are ground together again and afterwards moistened with mastic until all is liquid; then all is boiled in rain water and, the boiling done, one casts some sublimate upon the mortar; this is done three times and the water cast on the fourth time is kept together with the body of the lye..."

-Raffaella of Master Alexander Piccolomini, or A Dialogue of the Faire Perfectioning of Ladies: A Work Very Necessarie and Profitable For All Gentlewomen or Other. 16th century manuscript, John Nevinson translation, Glasgow 1968.

3. The main risk from mercury poisoning today comes from eating fish and shellfish, as mercury (an industrial by-product) concentrates in sediments and is taken up by microorganisms and marine organisms, which are then consumed by larger species.

4. Drugs containing mercury such as Blue Mass  and Calomel were popular until the connection was finally made between mercury and diseases (actually toxin syndromes) such as "Pink Disease".

5. When I was growing up in the sixties, we still used fever thermometers of glass and mercury. I actually bit one; fortunately, I bit the glass part and the bulb containing the liquid mercury remained intact. I also had the sense to not swallow - I patiently waited for Mom to pluck out the thermometer, at which point she screamed and I spat the whole mess out in her hand.

6. You might remember skin antiseptics called merthiolate and mercurochrome, in use until at least the 1970s. They stung like hell, dyed the skin red for days and...contained mercury.


  1. It was nuts what they painted on themselves in those days, thank goodness we know about it now eh. I remember those thermometers of glass and mercury too.

    1. Women have done terrible things to themselves, throughout history, in search of "beauty".

  2. Didn't hatters use it back in the day when Alice in Wonderland was written? Isn't that how he created the mad hatter?

    1. Yes indeed, it was used in the process of turning fur into felt.

  3. I just finished reading all your A-Z posts. Sorry it took me a while to return. It's been quite the week. I needed a day break. :) I'm loving your theme this month, Lisa. I'm going to make sure I come back again before the month is over.

    The list is always being culled, but I'm in the four hundreds. My blog is http://lilicasplace.com . I'm also one of Lisa's Live Wires. Have a great night. :) Eva

    1. No worries, i have fallen WAY behind in visiting and commenting. Thank you for stopping by and reading, I appreciate it!