“Coffers, Clysters, Comfreys & Coifs: the lives of our 17th century ancestors with Janet Braund Few aka ‘Mistress Agnes”
A brief, good humoured AGM preceded Janet Braund Few’s talk, “Coffers, Clysters, Comfreys & Coifs: the lives of our 17th century ancestors”, at the July meeting of West Dartmoor u3a.
Janet Few is a well-established Genealogist and academic Historian, specialising in the family history of Devon and Cornwall and as “The History Interpreter”, aims to bring history alive, in particular to discover the lives of the poor. This she does in a variety of ways, including appearing as her alter ego, “Mistress Agnes”, ably assisted by Master Christopher.
Mistress Agnes began by apologising for Janet Few’s absence and complaining that the historian was always taking bookings and then relying on Mistress Agnes to fulfil them. Having thoroughly established herself as a woman from the 17th century, Agnes proceeded to enlighten, enliven, greatly amuse and interest her audience.
Amongst accompanying slide pictures was one showing a chocolate box cottage dating from the 17th century, “All prettied up, ”with a terse description from the speaker of what it had really been like to live in, with a hardened mud floor, covered with bracken and strewing herbs, a fire which burned all day, all night and all year with just a hole in the roof as a chimney and access to the upstairs usually by a ladder of sorts.
A demonstration set of clothing was produced to dress Mary Dimond, whose husband was then questioned by Mistress Agnes. Mary’s short hair indicated that she had been punished for some transgression. Perhaps most surprising to the audience was the bum roll, a long sausage like cushion tied over the shift and under the petticoat (skirt) to attract the attention of the opposite sex who, as Master Christopher put it, liked, “A gurt great bum to cuddle up to at night.” It was also intended to suggest good child bearing hips. Completing the outfit, was the bodice, the lacing of which was the origin of the expression being strait laced. Mistress Agnes said the style favoured was crisscrossed, “Easy to undo”, interjected Master Christopher”, with a leer. Puritans used the straight across method making it more difficult and hence to be strait (straight) laced is to be somewhat prim and proper.
Life was hard in the 17th century. There was a need to be self-sufficient. Mistress Agnes was very knowledgeable about the culinary and medicinal use of herbs but confided she needed to be careful, for fear of being accused of witchcraft. The time travellers had a store of remedies, many of which made the cure seem worse than the problem, and recipes, many of which involved the use of urine and included a toe curling one for toothpaste. The audience was left with a sense of profound admiration for the tenacity of its ancestors who had also had the Civil War to contend with. It was a lively session.