Tag Archives: Andrea Cefalo

Abelard & Heloise: 5 Lesser-Known Facts about these Medieval Lovers

When most people hear the name Peter Abelard, they think of Heloise and their affair. Some liken this romance between teacher and student to Romeo and Juliet. What began with forbidden love ended in tragedy and separation, but that is where the similarities end.  So, for a special Valentine’s Day post, I’ve found five more interesting tidbits about the Middle Age’s most famous star-crossed lovers.

Abelard Was Looking for a Mistress Before He Met Heloise

abelard and his pupil heloise by edmund blair leighton

Leighton’s Abelard and His Pupil Heloise. (1882)

Abelard didn’t step blindly into a teacher position and then fall for his pupil, Heloise.  In fact, according to Pierre Bayle’s The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Abelard admits in a letter that he had already been searching for a mistress to help him pass “agreeably those hours he did not employ in his study” and while several women had caught his attention, he was not looking for “easy pleasure.”

In a letter written years later to a man named Philintus, Abelard says, “I was ambitious in my choice, and wished to find some obstacles, that I might surmount them with the greater glory and pleasure.” This suggests some forethought on the part of Abelard when it came to an affair.

Abelard Planned to Seduce Heloise Before She was His Student

It appears that Abelard had interacted with or at least known of Heloise before he was her teacher. In the same letter written to Philintus, Abelard says a young woman in Paris caught his eye. She was indeed Heloise.

In that same letter, Abelard writes that “by the offices of common friends I gained the acquaintance of Fulbert [Heloise’s uncle and caretaker]; and can you believe it…he allowed me the privilege of his table, and an apartment in his house?” Later, Fulbert asked Abelard if he would tutor Heloise. Imagine the cannon’s excitement when one of France’s most respected scholars agreed to tutor his niece. It was during their lessons that Abelard convinced a reluctant Heloise to become his lover.

Heloise and Abelard May Have Been Kinky

abelard and heloise surprised by master fulbert jean vignaud 1819

Vignaud’s Abelard and Heloise Surprised by Master Fulbert. (1819)

Okay. This isn’t exactly a fact and it may be a stretch. Bear with me. Heloise and Abelard had sex in places that put them at high risk for getting caught. Did they do this to spice up their lovemaking? It’s possible.

Besides this, the pair may have had domination and submission fetishes. In his biography of Heloise and Abelard, James Burge claims Heloise felt wild freedom in completely surrendering to Abelard. Priya Jain, in an article for Salon magazine, suggests her submission to Abelard may have extended into their sex life. Abelard mentions physically punishing Heloise during her lessons. He also says Heloise was reluctant to have sex in a church refectory but did so after some convincing. We can only speculate whether this translates to fetish, but it seems plausible.

Some might argue that medieval women were generally submissive to men, especially their husbands and fathers. But Heloise was not your average medieval woman.

A Public Marriage Might Have Been Career-Suicide for Abelard

Statue of Abelard by Jules Cavelier 1853 Louvre

Cavelier’s Abelard. (1853)

In previous years, it was considered acceptable for lower clergy—such as a scholar attached to a Church—to have a wife or lover. But by the twelfth century, these scholars were held to the same vows of chastity as monks and priests.

This didn’t deter Abelard from his affair or even make him particularly cautious. As mentioned above, the pair had sex in places where they could have easily been caught— Fulbert’s bed chambers, a church refectory, and a convent kitchen, to name a few. Strangely, the affair did not cost Abelard his career, even though Fulbert was a well-connected canon in Paris. Sadly, it was Heloise who suffered the greatest consequence at first.

When Heloise got pregnant, she left Paris to live with Abelard’s sister in Brittany. There she gave birth to a son. Eventually, Heloise agreed to a secret marriage. This meant Heloise’s reputation remained tarnished and she had to live in a convent. Meanwhile, Abelard lived life as usual. Some historians suggest Abelard began losing interest in Heloise, which must have been devastating to the woman who gave up so much for him. Around this time, Fulbert hired a man to castrate the scholar. This not only put a quick end to the affair, it prevented any future affairs Abelard might have had. It also left him humiliated.

Heloise Was Incredibly Unconventional

Jean-Baptiste Mallet Heloise at the Abbey of Paracelt

Mallet’s Heloise at the Abbey of Paraclete.(early 19th cent.)

For the most part, women—even those of higher status—were not as well-educated as their male counterparts. Abelard mentions that most women hated learning anything beyond needlework. Yet, Fulbert recognized his niece’s intellect and chose to nurture it. After all, Fulbert convinced one of France’s greatest scholars, Abelard, to instruct Heloise in philosophy. Even Abelard was impressed with her wit and how quickly she learned. Besides this, her well-written letters, rise to prioress, and unconventional yet logical arguments all speak to her intelligence and knowledge.

Heloise’s ideas about relationships were as counterculture as her education. Though it wasn’t exactly rare to have a child out of wedlock during the Middle Ages, it certainly wasn’t ideal. Most women would have married their lover for the sake of their reputation and that of their child. When Heloise’s pregnancy was made known, Fulbert insisted on a marriage and Abelard offered. Yet Heloise—at least initially—turned down the idea. She even recruited Abelard’s sister Lucilla to help convince him that


Abelard and Heloise. Manuscript Roman de la Rose. (14th cent.)

the marriage was a bad idea. In a letter to Abelard, Heloise says, “The name of mistress instead of wife would be dearer and more honorable for me…” In another letter, she says, “Even if I could be Queen to the Emperor and have all the power and riches in the world, I’d rather be your whore.”

Not only was her refusal unconventional, it was considered gravely sinful at the time and a risk to her soul’s salvation if she did not repent. Whether she decided to repent at some time in her life, I do not know. We do know that Heloise did submit to a secret marriage not long after the birth of their son, Astrolabe.

That brings up another unusual move on Heloise’s part. She named her son after an astronomical device invented by Muslim astronomers. During the Middle Ages, parents gave their children Christian names. For certain a bastard named Abelard would have drawn a few strange looks. Sadly, not much is known about their son.

Heloise’s lifelong devotion, while not exactly counterculture, is rather strange. One would think that after years apart, Heloise might have developed feelings of resentment towards Abelard. After all, Heloise had no desire to take holy orders, but she did at Abelard’s insistence. Yet, years later the two began a correspondence again that shows her undying affection for him and when Abelard died in 1142 at the age of 63, his remains were taken to Heloise who outlived him by 20 years. She asked to be placed in the same tomb as Abelard, but it is more likely that the two were entombed near each other. Later their remains were moved. Abelard and Heloise now rest side-by-side in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Lenoir's Tomb of Abelard and Heloise. (1817) Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Lenoir’s Tomb of Abelard and Heloise. (1817) Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

profile pic
Andrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel, The Countess’ Captive, was released in 2015.  To keep up with her blog posts, upcoming novels, and musings, follow her on Facebook and Twitter or sign up for the VIP monthly newsletter.


Works Cited

Abelard, Peter, and Heloise. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Trans. Betty Radice. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. Print.

Bayle, Pierre. “Letters of Abelard and Heloise.” Project Gutenburg. N.p., 27 Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

Cavlier, Jules. Abelard. 1853. Stone Scultpure. Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Heloise.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 July 1998. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Jain, Priya. “Lust, Revenge and the Religious Right in 12th Century Paris.” Salon. N.p., 18 Dec. 2004. Web. 8 Feb. 2017.

Leighton, Edmund Blair. Abelard and his Pupil Heloise. 1882. Oil on Canvas.

Lenoir, Alexandre. Tomb of Abélard and Héloïse. 1817. Tomb. Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Luscombe, David Edward. “Peter Abelard.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Mar. 1999. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Mallet, Jean-Baptiste Mallet. Eloise at the Abbey of Paraclet. Oil on canvas
Grasse, Musée Fragonard.

Nehring, Cristina. “Heloise & Abelard: Love Hurts.” Sunday Book Review. The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2005. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Vignaud, Jean. Abelard and Heloise Surprised by Master Fulbert. 1819. Oil on Canvas.


Was the Real Snow White a 16th-Century Countess?

Grimm's Fairy Tales Book Cover

Most of us associate the origin of Snow White with Willhelm and Jacob Grimm’s nineteenth-century publication of Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). Some assume  the brothers composed the volume of fairy tales, but most tales in the book were hundreds of years old by the time the Brother’s Grimm’s compiled them. Some stories, like Cinderella, were over a thousand years old.

I often wonder what inspired these tales. In a post about Snow White, author Kate Forsyth says there may be upwards of 400 versions of Snow White and the oldest is a”medieval Norse saga written by the 12th-century poet Snorri Sturluson, which sets the tale in the time of Harald Fairhair in the 9th century.”  While the saga and the German tale share some similarities (beautiful girl, a prince falls in love, she dies), the two stories are very different. The Norse version has no poisoning, no apples, no wicked stepmother, and no dwarves. So if the Norse tale is indeed the origin, how did the other elements end up in the German version of the tale?  Is it just the product of an unknown storyteller’s imagination, or is the German fairy tale somewhat rooted in historical fact?


Margarete von Waldeck (1513-1534) may have been the origin of Grimm’s Snow White.

According to German scholar Eckhard Sander, Grimm’s Snow White the latter is true. In his book,  Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?), Sander argues that the famous fairytale is based on the life of Countess Margarete Von Waldeck

Margarete was daughter to Count Phillip von Waldeck-Wildungen and stepdaughter to Katherina of Hatzefeld, whom Margarete did not get along with.  At the age of sixteen, Margarete’s father sent her away to Brussels, where she attracted the attention of Phillip II, a Spanish Hapsburg prince who later became king of Spain and Portugal.  A marriage between the Spanish prince and German countess was seen as politically disadvantageous by many, and Margarete’s untimely death all-too-conveniently ended the affair.

Portrait Phillip II of Spain Hapsburg

A love affair between Phillip II of Spain  Margarete von Waldeck may have resulted in her untimely death.

According to Sander, Margarete did not die of some unknown illness but was poisoned. On her deathbed, it’s said that  Margarete composed her will with a tremored-hand, a sign of poisoning though I think the fear of death alone might cause a woman so young to be a little shaky when writing her own will.

So let’s assume Margarete was poisoned. Who did it?   Her “wicked” stepmother died before Margarete, so she couldn’t have been the culprit. Besides, there were others who had more to gain in killing Margarete. Sander believes the Spanish poisoned Margarete to keep her from marrying the future king.While it is unlikely that the weapon of choice was an apple, there seems to be some evidence that a man living in Wildungen gave poisoned apples to children whom he suspected were stealing from him. This may be how poisoned apples ended up in the German fairy tale.

children coal mine

Sander believes children working in coal mines were the basis of Snow White’s seven dwarves.

But what about those seven dwarves? Where did they come from?  Maragerete’s brother owned copper mines in Wildungen which employed children who worked twelve hour days.  The children grew crooked and crippled from the work. Their hair grayed prematurely and most were dead before the age of  twenty.  Thus, they looked much like the dwarves from the Brother Grimm’s tale.  According to Sander, the many parts of the story from this particular region were told and retold until they became the tale that the Grimm brothers recorded, and we now know as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

According to Sander, the many parts of the story from this particular region were told and retold until they became the tale that the Grimm brothers recorded, and we now know as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Whether Sander’s theory is right or not remains a mystery. But for me, Sander’s research on Snow White’s origins is every bit as compelling as the German fairy tale.

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel The Fairytale Keeper, made it to the quarter-final round in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier last year.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

Did you enjoy this article? Well, there’s more where that came from! Check out the archives or peruse the sidebar for a list of trending posts.  To make sure you don’t miss out on my latest articles, follow this blog or sign up for the newsletter.

And if you happen to be a historical fiction reader who loves a strong female voice and gritty Medieval settings, check out The Fairytale Keeper series. (When a storyteller’s daughter attempts to avenge her mother, she gets caught in the cross-hairs of a power struggle between kings and kingmakers. The conflict gives rise to some of the greatest stories ever told: Grimm’s Fairy Tales.) Publisher’s Weekly calls The Fairytale Keeper a “resonant tale set late in the 13th century…with unexpected plot twists. An engaging story of revenge.”

5 MORE Deadly and Disgusting Victorian Beauty Trends

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel The Fairytale Keeper, was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier this year.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

From undergoing surgery to having botox injected into their faces, some modern women go to risky lengths for beauty. Victorian women did the same. Unfortunately for them, agencies like the FDA didn’t exist, and women often didn’t know the dangers or even the contents of their cosmetics. While some makeup and tricks from the Victorian Era were harmless, the lack of regulation led women to venture down some dangerous avenues—all for the sake of beauty. As promised, here is the final article in my two-part series on deadly Victorian beauty trends. Click here to read the first part.

  1. Bathing in Arsenic

Once again the struggle for the perfect complexion led Victorian women to extremes. According to expert Alexis Karl, rumors emerged of women in Bavaria soaking in arsenic baths to keep their skin pristinely white. While bathing in arsenic is not nearly as deadly as ingesting it, bathing in water containing more than 500 parts per billion of the toxic element is highly discouraged as it can exacerbate the symptoms it was meant to cure, such as irritation and redness.

Perhaps more dangerous were the fumes rising from the warm waters. According to the EPA, chronic inhalation of arsenic fumes poses a wide range of health risks from pharyngitis to lung cancer.

Fould's Medicated Arsenic Soap

Predatory companies led Victorian Women to believe ingesting and soaking in arsenic would clear their skin.

2. Polishing Teeth with Cocaine and Boars’ Hair

By the 1870s, women had access to Colgate toothpaste-though it would be another sixty years before anyone used a nylon toothbrush, which DuPont invented in 1938. Like modern Americans, Victorian women desired clean white teeth and healthy gums, but to keep their smiles looking pearly they used tooth powders rather than paste. According to Mary Rose at Everyday Goth, prior to 1870, the tooth powders were often made at home and recipes varied. Some “called for a drop or two of cocaine to be mixed in.” This may have been to help with pain as cocaine will numb the gums. Today, anyone with a middle-school education knows cocaine has a long list of terrible long and short-term side-effects.

Cocaine toothache drops

By the time dentists realized the dangers of cocaine, it was already available to the public.

The man who introduced cocaine into dentistry-William Haldsted-witnessed this first-hand. While the powerful anesthetic revolutionized dentistry, cocaine caused addictions. Haldsted and his colleagues abused the drug. All but one of his colleagues died, so chemists sought an alternative and introduced Novocain in 1905, which quickly replaced cocaine as a local anesthetic.

During the Victorian era, tooth powder recipes varied and just the thought of some of their ingredients will leave a bitter taste on most tongues. In her book, How to Be a Victorian, Ruth Goodman states that soot, chalk, coral, alum, powdered cuttlefish, myrrh, and camphor were commonly used to clean teeth.  After trying the different recipes, (Yes, she actually tried them.) Ms.Goodman said she preferred tooth powders made with soot over the other ingredients.

So how exactly did Victorian women apply their tooth powders and scrub the grime from their teeth, you ask? Some women polished their teeth with cloth, others used toothbrushes with bristles made of boars’ hair. For certain, the hairs were cleaned before the toothbrushes were used, but the idea of cleaning teeth with something that may have been rolling in feces at one point is unsavory to say the least.

Victorian Toothbrush

This advertisement shows the variety of toothbrushes available during the Victorian era. They were often made of animal hair.

  1. Waist Training with Corsets

Though corsets have been around for centuries, women used them to their most dramatic effect during the Victorian Era to achieve the ideal hourglass figure. An examination of corsets on display in French and English museums show the average waist size of a Victorian corset-wearer was twenty-two inches (which is ten inches fewer than today’s average). Women weren’t the only ones wearing corsets during the nineteenth century. Men, like England’s King George IV, sported the contraption as well and suffered the consequences. In 1821, the constriction of his taut “body belt” nearly caused the king to faint.

gibson girl corset

Corsets narrowed the waists of Victorian women. The average diameter (twenty-two inches) was ten fewer inches than today.

Shockingly this beauty trend has made a recent comeback despite its possible dangers. To see how corsets affected internal organs, famous physician and talk show host Dr. Oz asked an avid waist trainer to have an MRI. The results were shocking. When his patient donned a corset, her diaphragm was pushed up two inches and other major organs (liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestines) were shoved upward, as well. The compression on her rib cage left a noticeable ridge-shaped imprint on the liver.

Today, many physicians suspect waist training can cause a wide range of complications like pneumonia, constipation, raised blood pressure, acid reflux, and fainting. But is waist-training deadly?

To answer that question, American anthropologist Rebecca Gibson studied the remains of ten female skeletons from the Victorian and Georgian Eras. As predicted, the rib cages and spines of the corset-wearing women were similarly deformed. But it seems the long-term effects of extreme cinching might not be as deadly as we think. In fact, most of these women met or exceeded the average life expectancy.

4. Squirting Lemon Juice Or Belladonna Juice in the Eyes

Old Queen Victoria

Rather than have surgery for her cataracts, Queen Victoria turned to belladonna to dilate her pupils so she could see.

Victorian women believed eye drops with strange ingredients, like lemon and orange juice, kept their eyes clean and bright. Anyone who loves a splash of lemon in their water has probably accidentally squirted a bit of the juice in their eyes once or twice. It’s not a pleasant experience and often causes redness and irritation. According to ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Drew Ordon, these eye drop could also cause corneal abrasions and blindness.

On top of wanting their eyes clean, women longed for large dilated pupils. To create the effect, they turned to eye drops made of belladonna, a well-known poison. Fortunately, belladonna is rarely deadly when used as an eye drop, though ingesting it is extremely dangerous. In her older years, Queen Victoria used the drops as an alternative to cataract surgery. While they certainly didn’t rid her of cataracts, the belladonna dilated her pupils so she could see.

Today, ophthalmologists rely on the drug to treat infections and perform eye exams. Long-term use of the drug is not recommended and can result in a lethal overdose. Immediate side effects include irritation, blurred vision, and light sensitivity. Rarely, belladonna drops cause dizziness, fainting, irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and sudden mood changes.

5. Hiding Blemishes With Lead Face Pastes and Powders

To cover unsightly blemishes and scars, women turned to face paints and powders. Some of these concoctions were rather mild, containing ingredients like rice powder, zinc oxide, or the extremely expensive blend of chloride of bismuth and talc. Others were made of lead flakes. Not only is lead highly toxic, it is easily absorbed through the skin. Side effects of lead poisoning include headache, constipation, memory loss, pain and numbness, and if ingested in large enough quantities, will cause paralysis and death.

Like several other Victorian beauty techniques, lead cosmetics often caused problems it was meant to remedy. Combining lead face powders and paints with corrosive washes resulted in wounds and scars. Women tried to hide the blemishes beneath heavier layers of lead makeup, which made the problem worse.  These thick layers of make-up cracked like porcelain if a woman was too expressive. Since women were expected to be naturally beautiful during the era, appearing at a social event with cracking face paste would have been extremely mortifying.

Victorian Face Powder

Though face powders like this one claimed to be harmless, women rarely knew the ingredients.

Works Cited:

Rob, Alice. “The Deadly Risks of a Victorian Beauty Regime.” Women in the World in  Association with The New York Times WITW. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

“Arsenic Compounds.” Arsenic Compounds. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.

“Atropine Drops: Indications, Side Effects, Warnings – Drugs.com.” Atropine Drops: Indications, Side Effects, Warnings – Drugs.com. Drugs.com, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Calcaterra, Nicholas. “Cocaine: Dentistry’s First Local Anesthetic | Novocaine | Lidocaine.” Directions in Dentistry. N.p., 22 Apr. 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Connelly, D.D.S. Thomas P. “The History of Toothpaste: From 5000 BC to the Present.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 2 Sept. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Corsets – A History Lesson – 1800’s to 1920’s.” Festooned Butterfly. N.p., 09 July 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Dangerous Trends.” The Doctors. The Doctors TV Show, 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Dr. Oz Shows How Waist Training Affects Your Body.” – Oz Investigates Waist Training: Is It Safe? Dr. Oz Show, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Fleming, R.S. “Kate Tattersall Adventures.” Kate Tattersall Adventures. N.p., 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Killgrove, Kristina. “Here’s How Corsets Deformed The Skeletons Of Victorian Women.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Lead Poisoning.” Healthline. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Mapes, Diane. “Suffering for Beauty Has Ancient Roots.” Msnbc.com. MSNBC, 11 Jan. 2008. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Mullen, Alexandra. “Book Review: ‘How to Be a Victorian.” WSJ. Wall Street Journal, 3 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“National Museum of Dentistry.” National Museum of Dentistry. Ed. Gary A. Rayant. N.p., 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Newman, Judith. “‘How to Be a Victorian,’ by Ruth Goodman.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Protect Yourself From Arsenic in Your Well Water.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. North Carolina Department of Public Heath. Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Rose, Mary. “The Everyday Goth: 5 Victorian Beauty Tips Guaranteed to Kill You.” The Everyday Goth: 5 Victorian Beauty Tips Guaranteed to Kill You. N.p., 29 May 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
”    Who Invented the Toothbrush and When Was It Invented?” Who Invented the Toothbrush and When Was It? (Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress). Library of Congress, 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“William Stewart Halsted.” About Halsted. John Hopkins University, 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.

5 Deadly and Disgusting Victorian Beauty Trends

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier this year.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

Though beauty standards have changed over the course of human history, the aspirations and efforts of women to meet these ideals remains largely unchanged. Today, the beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that helps women pucker, pinch, pluck, and paint. At least modern women can count on agencies like the FDA to help keep harmful cosmetics off the market. Women living only a century ago weren’t nearly as fortunate and even though natural beauty was the standard and Queen Victoria declared makeup indecent, advertisements from the era prove beauty was a booming business. While some cosmetics and tricks from the Victorian Era were harmless, the lack of regulation led women to venture down some risky avenues—all for the sake of beauty. Ranging from disgusting to downright deadly, below are five of the strangest beauty trends and techniques from the Victorian Era.

1. Catching Tuberculosis

According to researcher Alexis Karl, the symptomatic pale skin of consumptives was associated with innocence, beauty, and above all else wealth. For those ladies who had to work outdoors a surefire way to keep pale was to catch TB. Contracting the Red Death had other beauty benefits, as well. The watery eyes, narrow waist, and translucent complexion of Tuberculosis victims was highly prized and women with the disease were considered extraordinarily beautiful. That being said, death by tuberculosis was pretty horrific, and it seems unlikely that any level-headed person would try to catch it on purpose.

Sleep and his half-brother death

Sleep and his Half-brother Death (1874) by John William Waterhouse.

2. Eating Arsenic Wafers

Women believed eating these deadly supplements not only cleared their complexions, but also changed the shape of their faces by softening sharp features and disfigurements. In 1902, the Sears Roebuck catalog touted Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers as a cure-all, saying it possessed “the ‘Wizard’s Touch’ in producing, preserving and enhancing beauty of form… surely developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, shapely contour of form, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin…” The advertisement adamantly claimed that the amount of arsenic in these wafer “crafted by expert chemists” was completely safe. That’s likely untrue.

According to Andrew Meharg, an arsenic expert and professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, regular exposure to minute amounts of inorganic arsenic (10 parts per billion) increases a person’s risk for heart disease and cancer. On top of a long list of horrific side-effects—renal failure, epilepsy, and numbness to name a few—higher doses of arsenic caused the skin deformities that these wafers claimed to remedy.

Dr. Rose Arsenic Wafers

Companies like Sears Roebuck claimed arsenic was safe for consumption.

3. Applying Mercury Eye Shadow

For the most part, Victorian women strived for natural beauty and ladies of high social standing rarely admitted to using make-up—though they most certainly did. The more brazen women wore thick eyeshadow—called eye paint—in shades of red and black. Respectable ladies lined their eyes subtly in similar shades. What was in this so-called eye paint? For starters, a substance called cinnabar was used to create vermillion red. It sounds innocent enough, but contains mercuric sulphide, which can cause kidney damage. Eye paints also contained lead tetroxide and antimony oxide, both of which are considered harmful to humans.


Napoleon toilet service

Toilet services like this, a gift from Napoleon to Josephine in 1810, sometimes hid cosmetics in secret compartments.

4. Dabbing Carmine on the Lips


Victorian women looking to add a little color to their lips often turned to a scarlet pigment called carmine. The pigment itself comes from the cochineal, a parasitic insect native to South America and Mexico. Most commonly, the pigment is extracted by grinding the insect bodies into a fine powder and then boiling them in ammonia. While carmine is rather disgusting, the dye only poses a threat to those who are allergic to it.

From strawberry toaster pastries to red velvet cake mixes, carmine dyes can be found in a variety of foods today. It is also commonly used in cosmetics and supplements. Consumer’s with an aversion to exoskeletons, can avoid it by checking the ingredient list on products before buying them. Carmine is also called Crimson Lake, Natural Red 4, C.I. 75470, Cochineal, and E120.


Cochineal were used to create red pigments in Victorian cosmetics.

5. Whitening Skin with Lead Lotions

In order to rid themselves of freckles and blemishes, many Victorian women turned to corrosive face lotions. Though companies advertised that their “toilet preparations” were harmless, the American Medical Association begged to differ. In 1869, the AMA published a paper entitled “Three Cases of Lead Palsy from the Use of a Cosmetic Called ‘Laird’s Bloom of Youth’” which warned women of potential health risks from these so-called safe beauty treatments. Considering the face lotion contained lead acetate, it’s no surprise Laird’s Blood of Youth caused side effects such as paralysis, muscle atrophy, headaches, and nausea.

Lairds Bloom of Youth

This ad falsely claims the safety of Laird’s Bloom of Youth.

Did you enjoy this article? An article entitled 5 More Deadly and Disgusting Beauty Trends is coming early next week. Follow the blog to make sure you don’t miss out.

Works Cited
Fleming, R.S. “Early Victorian Era Makeup, Cosmetics, and Embelishments.” Kate Tattersall Adventures. R.S Fleming, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Hibbert, Christopher. “The Middle Class.” Life in Victorian England. New York: Horizon, 2016. N. pag. Print.
Liu, Jie, Jing-Zheng Shi, Li-Mei Yu, Robert A. Goyer, and Michael P. Waalkes. “Mercury in Traditional Medicines: Is Cinnabar Toxicologically Similar to Common Mercurials?” Experimental Biology and Medicine (Maywood, N.J.). U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Apr. 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Mapes, Diane. “Suffering for Beauty Has Ancient Roots.” Msnbc.com. N.p., 11 Jan. 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Rob, Alice. “The Deadly Risks of a Victorian Beauty Regime.” Women in the World in Association with The New York Times WITW. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Sears Roebuck. Spring Catalog 1902 1902: n. pag. Print.
Shute, Nancy. “In Rice, How Much Arsenic Is Too Much?” NPR. NPR, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Yoquinto, Luke. “The Truth About Red Food Dye Made from Bugs.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.


The Best of Disney Princesses Reimagined

Despite their respective ages,  Disney’s princesses still manage to penetrate American pop-culture. From mash-ups to realistic portraits,  artists from all over the world started puting their own unique stamp on Disney’s damsels.  Each year a few of these reimaginings go viral, but which ones are the very best? To answer that question, I scoured the internet and came up with this post of my six favorite.

6. If Disney Princesses Had Instagram

This one is almost as good as a time capsule. Does anything say 2015 quite like Disney characters with Instagram accounts? In her series, Italian artist Simona Bonafini turns Disney’s classic characters into present-day teens and twenty-somethings. I especially love the Hercules gym selfie.

5. Disney Princesses as Hipsters

So remember how I asked if anything was as 2015 as Disney characters with Instagram accounts? It might be Disney Princesses as Hipsters. From a goth Belle to a tatted-up Aurora, artist and professional illustrator Emmanuel Viola liberates Disney’s damsels from their too-perfect personas in this series to prove “there’s always a dark side in all of us.”

4. The Wonderful World of Westeros

Yup. Game of Thrones meets Disney World in this series by DeviantART user DjeDjehuti.  It’s as genius as it is absurd.

Some of the castings are perfect: Elsa as Daenerys and Mulan as Brienne. Others, like Aurora as Cersei and Ariel as Melisandre, merely look the part. Still, this is one of my absolute favorite reimaginings and I’m crossing my fingers that the artist will do a series with Disney’s princes, too.

3. Disney Princesses As Pin-Ups

If you thought Viola was crossing a line with his hipster princesses, get ready to leap over it with Andrew Tarusov. In his pin-up series, Disney princesses get down-right sexy. This one requires a sense of humor (a Frozen threesome??) Tarusov’s series was so popular that he created a second, reimagining the villainesses as sexy vixens, too.

2. Real-Life Disney Princesses

Probably the most stunning of the reimaginings are Helsinki artist Jirka Vaatainen’s  portraits. The elegant series was so hugely popular that Vaatainen did a follow-up, transforming Disney’s princes into realistic hunks. Seriously. You’ll dump your book boyfriends for these guys.

1. Historically-Accurate Disney Princesses

The people at Buzzfeed did a phenomenal job with this video. Since I’m  a history blogger and historical fiction novelist, it should come to no surprise to any of you that this is my absolute favorite.

Celebrating 92 Years of Disney Animation in 92 Seconds

It’s hard to believe that Disney’s been animating for nearly a century. This week, 92 years ago, Walt Disney made the trip to California with his brother Roy to start what would later be called Walt Disney Pictures. It’s hard to imagine America today without it. Yesterday, Disney created and tweeted a 92-second video featuring 92 years-worth of Disney films to mark the occasion. (See the video below.)

Disney and his creations managed to penetrate nearly every aspect of American pop-culture from fashion to entertainment to travel. I think every writer and artist dreams of “making it big,” but thinking your musings will have an everlasting stamp on pop-culture, that borders on delusional.

But Disney did it.

It’s hard to imagine a world without him. No trick-or-treaters dressed as Disney Princesses. No Disney World. No Mickey Mouse. It makes me depressed just thinking about it.

So what was Disney’s greatest gift to modern America? Was it licensed merchandising, theme parks, or the feature-length animated film? I think it is something bigger than all three of these things.

tumblr_mefdmet0oy1qzbm6ao1_1280Without Walt Disney, I wouldn’t be a writer today. Not only has he inspired me to dream big, he is the reason I—and many others—love fairytales. Without him, I might never have learned to love the stories of Snow White and Cinderella. Without him, I might never have opened the pages to Grimm’s Fairytales and discovered The Three Army Surgeons and The Girl With No Hands. Without him, I would have never wondered where these stories came from and I would have never written The Fairytale Keeper series. I don’t know that most people can say Walt Disney changed the course of their lives like I can, but surely he brought some sense of whimsy and joy to all our lives. In my opinion, that is his biggest contribution—making millions of people happy and proving they too could follow their dreams.

So for this, I say we raise our venti macchiatos to an American legend. Thank you, Walt Disney, for bringing magic to our lives and daring us to dream.

Below is the 92-second animation tweeted by Disney earlier this week. Beneath that, is a six-minute documentary  on the evolution of Mickey Mouse and Disney animation. Enjoy and share!

St. Kunibert

Medieval Cologne and St. Kunibert Through The Eyes of a Main Character

St. Kunibert

Built in the mid-thirteenth century, St. Kunibert is Cologne’s youngest Gothic Cathedral. (Photo Credit: The Great Jesus Experiment)

Where in the world is Ivo Bauer?

It is the 24th of April in the year of our Lord 1248 and Ivo Bauer sits perched in an oak that’s just beginning to leaf outside St. Kunibert’s Gate in Cologne. If he cranes his neck, he can see beyond the Gothic towers of Cologne’s newest cathedral to the dozens of trading vessel flocking to Rheine Gate.

Writing takes me—and my characters—to wonderful places. If you couldn’t tell already, today we are in thirteenth-century Cologne just outside one of its many famous gates. If you keep up with my blog, you’ll know that Cologne has a rich and fascinating history. The parish of St. Kunibert is no exception.

St. Kunibert

The historical map (bottom left) shows the city of Cologne. The map (at right) shows the city’s divided into parishes. St. Kunibert is located in the lower left. The map on the upper right is a close-up of this section of the city.

A Brief History of St. Kunibert

St. Kunibert’s Cathedral still stands today in the southeast of Cologne. The youngest Gothic cathedral in the city, it was consecrated in 1247, despite not being finished. To celebrate, Cologne’s infamous archbishop—Konrad von Hochstaden—threw a feast for Cologne’s elite. A year later this same archbishop laid the cornerstone of the city’s famous cathedral after the previous cathedral burned to the ground.
The area of Kunibert has a long history. Prior to the cathedral, a seventh-century basilica dedicated to St. Clement sat on the grounds, but when Cologne’s beloved bishop Kunibert died and his remains were interned at the church in 663, the basilica soon became synonymous with him.
Two fairly famous legends surround the area. In May of 1030, when a fire in St. Mary of the Steps threatened to burn the city cathedral, canons from St. Kunibert lugged the sainted bishop’s shrine to the cathedral steps and it’s said that the fire extinguished instantly. Perhaps even stranger, the cathedral houses a room beneath the altar with an ancient well. Women once believed drinking its waters increased their chances of fertility. I’m not quite sure why they have blocked it off. It makes me wonder if people, believing the legend, still attempt to drink from it.

Thanks for reading. Want to explore the fascinating world of Medieval Cologne with my characters? Get a FREE sample of The Fairytale Keeper sent to your Kindle from Amazon.com. To see more posts like this one, click the follow button in the sidebar or sign up for my monthly newsletter.



Stretching a Medieval Penny: The Somewhat Empty Purse of a Medieval Shoemaker


Medieval re-enactor acting as a cobbler.

All novelist struggle with crafting believable characters. For historical fiction writers, I think the challenge is even greater. We walk a tight rope with believability on one side and intrigue and relatability on the other. Needless to say, it was after a great deal of research that I created Ansel Schumacher. The breadwinner in my novel, The Fairytale Keeper, Ansel is a shoemaker living in 13th century Cologne. To develop a better understanding of what his family’s economic situation would have been like, I created the chart below.

There are a few things worth noting before reading the table. First, if our shoemaker didn’t sell shoes, he didn’t make money. Luckily, Cologne was a city 40,000 strong and its relic of The Three Magi drew thousands of pilgrims each year. During tough economic times, a cobbler could spend less on food and drink—foregoing expenses like spices and proteins.  But there were a few expenses he couldn’t escape: rent, taxes, and tithes. Based on my research, the average shoemaker[1] living in the middle 13th century made 44 pennies each month. Here’s what his monthly budget might have looked like.

Monthly Bill Amount Description
Rent[2] 9 pennies A typical craftsman house would have had a workshop, solar, and two bedchambers.
Food[3] 15 pennies
  • 4 1/2 pennies on grains to make pottage, oatcakes, and ale
  • 4 pennies on bread.
  • 4 pennies on small amounts of either salted herring, eggs, offal, other cheap meat, cheese, milk, or almond milk
  • 1 penny on spice blends
  • 2 pennies on produce, pickled produce, dried nuts, fresh fruit, or fresh herbs
Ale[4] 3 ½  pennies 4 cups a day per person in 4 person family.
Tithes 4 ½  pennies Ten percent of a person’s income went to tithes.
Taxes[5] 4 ½ pennies Tax rates fluctuated, but on average ten percent of a person’s wages went to taxes.
Household Expenses[6] Varied based on need.
Savings 7 ½ pennies  (unless there are household expenses)

A 13th century shoemaker would have bought food for his faimly at a market, like the one in this artist rendering.

[1] Hodges’ List of Prices does not list the wages of a shoemaker. I make the assumption that a shoemaker probably made the same amount as a weaver, which Hodges does list. In the year 1407, a weaver made 5 pennies per day. According to another part of Hodges’ list a thatcher living in the middle 13th century made 44% of what a thatcher living in 1407 would have made. Assuming that this rate of inflation applied to everyone’s pay, I have adjusted my imaginary shoemaker’s income and the prices of the items he buys accordingly.

[2] Hodges’ List of Prices lists the rent of a craftsman’s home in the 14th  century to be 20 schillings per year in London. I’ve adjusted this according to the wages of the middle thirteenth century in which a craftsman made 44% the wages.

[3] This is a ball park figure in the most extreme sense of the phrase. First of all, this budget assumes our shoemaker lived in a city and was not able to grow a small garden of his own. Therefore, he had to buy everything at the market. Someone living on this kind of income would have relied on pottages and breads most likely. He might have had money for a little meat now and then, when meat was allowed. Nearly half the year–when one accounts for Lent, Advent, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays—people living in the Middle Ages were not allowed to eat meat. Only fish was permitted during these times. Ian Mortimer says the price of fish was high, but Hodges’ list states the purchase price for 5-10 salt herrings at 1 penny. Salted herring was probably the cheapest form of fish and people grew quite sick of it, especially by the end of Lent. Also worth noting, many foods were available seasonably.

[4] In The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer states that four gallons of ale fetched a penny in the 14th century. I think it’s safe to assume that someone living in the thirteenth century could purchase it or brew it (as women were expected to do) for about half of that. Assuming that each person in a four person household drank an average of 4 cups of ale each day, the family would go through roughly a gallon a day. Surely when times were bad, cobblers drank less, relied on their wives home-brewed ale, or in dire times collected water in cisterns. They may have also spent more money on better ale or wine during times of celebration and wealth.

[5] Like today, taxes could be levied on income, goods, or property.

[6] Household expenses could be anything from household goods, clothing, grooming, and healthcare. I imagine most woman came with the goods needed to keep a peasant household. Even peasant women came with a dowry of some sort by the thirteenth century. Hodges’ List shows peasant dowries of between 15 and 57 schillings in the 14th century. Adjusted for the 13th century, this would have been 6 and 25 schillings, roughly 2 to 7 months of a cobbler’s pay. Little wonder women were praised for birthing sons. I think this also is evidence that people living in the High Middle Ages were savers and not spenders. That being said, children would come with expenses of their own. A cobbler might have to pay for them a fee for them to be able to start an apprenticeship or their clothing and shoes would get worn. Certainly during hard times, people in the Middle Ages would have kept raged shoes a little longer in order to make sure they had enough money for food.

Hodges, Kenneth. “List of Prices of Medieval Items.” Hodges. List of Prices of Items in Medieval England. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2014.
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Touchstone, 2014. Print.
Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969. Print.
Powicke, F. M. The Thirteenth Century: 1216-1307. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
Photo of Medieval Shoemaker: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/archeon/3448099214/

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like:

Penny, Pfennig, and Denier: Comparing the Coins of Medieval Europe

Halfpennies, Farthings, and Nobles: A Guide to England’s Medieval Coins

Inventing the Penny: Charlemagne’s Lost Effort at a Standard Currency

Venetian Ducat

Penny, Pfennig, and Denier: Comparing the Coins of Medieval Europe

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.

Medieval coins

By the High Middle Ages political and economic systems in Europe became more complex, so too did the coins. For example, in part twelve of Ken Elks’ book, Coinage of Great Britain: Celtic to Decimalization, his charts show eighteen changes in Scottish coinage alone in a one hundred year period.

Historical fiction writers like myself try to paint the most accurate portrait of history that we can. I wanted to better understand the money of Medieval Germany so that I could better understand what my characters could earn and spend. The chart below serves to simplify a very complex system.  I created it for myself, but I thought it might be of interest to others, so I am publishing it. Below the chart, I’ve listed a few facts worth considering before examining the table.

Coin Name Value First Use Description
English Medieval PennyEnglish: Penny

french denierFrench: Denier

pfennigGerman: Pfennig

Italian DenariItalian: Denari

1/240th pound of silver Late 700s
  • In 790, Charlemagne declared that 240 pennies should be minted from a pound of silver.
  • Smaller denominations of pennies were minted during the High Middle Ages like the English farthing and halfpenny.
groatEnglish: Groat

grostournaisFrench: Gross Tournois

groschenGerman: Groschen

Italian GrossoItalian: Grosso

  • 4 English pennies or…
  • 6 German pfennigs
  • A variety of coins fall into the groat category.
  • The word gross means big in German.
  • The term indicates that it was a big penny.
  • Counterfeit and devalued pennies made the groat a more popular coin among merchants.
English: Schilling

French: Sous

German:  Skilling

Italian: Soldi

  • 12 pennies or…
  • 3 groats or…
  • 1/10th mark or…
  • 1/20th pound
  • During most of the Middle Ages, the schilling was a unit of account. People didn’t carry schillings in their purses.
  • The Florentines were the first to mint testones, a coin valued at a shilling, in the late 1400s.
  • The French and English were quick to follow suit, minting their own testoons.
  • The testoon became the shilling after Henry VIII’s reign.
Edward_III_nobleEnglish: Noble

Ecu d'or CoinFrench:  Ecu d’or

German GuldenGerman: Guilder/Gulden

FlorinFlorentine: Florin

Venetian DucatVenetian: Ducat

  • 80 pennies or…
  • 6 schillings and 8 pennies or…
  • 1/3 of a pound
  • Late 1200s in Italy
  • More widely used across Europe in 1300s
  • Many areas minted quarter and half denominations of these coins. Some of the smaller denominations were minted in silver.
  • The English minted half nobles and quarter nobles.
English: Mark

French: ?

German: Mark

Italy: ?

  • 120 pennies or…
  • 1/2 of a pound
  • During most of the Middle Ages, the mark was a unit of account and most nations didn’t mint them.
English: Pound

French: Livre

German: Pfund?

Italian: Lira

  • 240 pennies or…
  • 60 groats or…
  • 20 schillings or…
  • 6 Half Nobles or…
  • 3 Nobles or…
  • 2 Marks
  • During most of the Middle Ages, the pound was a unit of account and most nations didn’t mint them.
  • By the end of the Middle Ages the French were minting Francs.

Medieval minting shopThings to Consider:

  1. Coin values varied between nations. It’s similar to comparing an American dollar with the English pound or Euro. Each has a different value. The value of money in the Middle Ages was directly correlated with the coin’s size and silver or gold content, not the nation’s economic power.
    1. In general, German coins were of lower quality and value than English coins. The German lands consisted of duchies, counties, imperial cities, archbishoprics, and bishoprics. The Hohenstaufens doled out minting rights and didn’t regulate them. Therefore, many areas minted coins of varying quality. By the thirteenth century, six German pfennigs equaled four English pennies.
    2. During much of the early Middle Ages, the French kings were weak, and the kingdom itself was fairly small. While they minted purer coins than the Germans, the appearance varied widely. The mints of Tours in Touraine were considered the most stable.

By the end of the Middle Ages—much like the Scots—the French kings were constantly changing the coins and their value. Therefore, it is easier to classify the French coins into categories like types of pennies, types of big pennies (groats), and types of gold coins.

  1. As time passed and trade expanded into all classes, there was need for coins of larger and smaller denominations. The average pay for a day’s wages during the High Middle Ages was a penny. Let’s compare that to today where the average pay is about 100 dollars.

Imagine having to pay for everything with 100 dollar bills, except imagine that the 100 dollar bill was a coin. What if something costs 25 dollars? Then you have to chop the coin into fourths. It’s not very convenient. Here’s where it gets more complex: not every area minted the same denominations.  However, most of them had a silver penny, a groat, and by the fourteenth century, a gold coin.

  1. Minters and noblemen got greedy or they went through difficult economic times and would devalue their own currency to keep the excess silver and gold. I discuss this more in a previous article: Inventing the Penny: Charlemagne’s Lost Effort at a Standard Currency.

Whether you’re a historical fiction writer or budding medievalist, I hope you found this chart of value. If you find any errors in my research, please comment.

“Banks and Money.” Currency and Banking in the Late Middle Ages. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.http://europeanhistory.boisestate.edu/latemiddleages/econ/banking.shtml
Brooke, Christopher Nugent Lawrence. Europe in the Central Middle Ages: 962-1154. Harlow: Longman, 2000. Print.
“Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe.” Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.http://www.medievalcoinage.com/denominations/
“Medieval Sourcebook: William of Malmesbury: Counterfeit Money in the Time of King Stephen, 1140.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.
“The Fitzwilliam Museum : Coins and Medals Home.” The Fitzwilliam Museum News. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/coins/
“Testoon.” ø. Coin and Bullion Pages, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

From Medieval Nobles to Modern-Day Nobody: The Somewhat Tragic Trail of My Ancestry (And Probably Yours, Too)

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.


Emperor Fredeirkc II

My 22nd Great-Grandfather, Emperor Frederick II

I have the blood of kings and emperors flowing through my veins. Well, just a trickle of it.  That doesn’t make me original. That makes me ordinary. Most Americans can trace their lineage to an ancestor of notoriety and wealth…yet most of us have little of either. So how did we end up here? Why aren’t we living off trust funds and jet-setting to summer homes? How did we go from Noble to Nobody?

To answer my own question, I began my research with my 22nd great-grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. From his birth in 1194 up until 1332, things looked REALLY good. It was all emperors and countesses and duchesses and dukes.

Then, I stumbled upon my 18th great-grandfather, Philip of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, Constable of Jerusalem. Constable! How did we go from dukes to constables in one generation?!

Sadly for poor Philip of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, he was a sixth-born son, and many of his siblings lived. In Medieval Europe, it rarely paid to be a sixth-born son with a brood of healthy brothers and sisters. All the titles and lands were doled out by the time poor Philip humbly approached his father with out-stretched palms.

Janus I of Cyprus

My 16th Great-Grandfather, King Janus I of Cypress

Strangely enough things started to look up with Philip’s daughter, my 17th great-grandmother, Helvis of Brunswick-Grubenhagen. Like most girls, she married a man like gold-old dad—another constable. But because Helvis’s husband outlived three older brothers and a nephew, he became King James I of Cyprus. Helvis jumped from constable’s daughter to queen in her lifetime, basically winning the Medieval lottery of social hierarchy. Sadly for her and her husband, they spent much of their marriage as captives in Genoa.

Their kingdom passed on to their son, Janus I. I perused the records on his descendants, holding my breath a few times as I stumbled across girls or third-born sons, but by the grace of God, my ancestors either married well or outlived their rivals.

Everything was going great up until 1641. That was the year my 9th great-grandfather was born: Francis Savoy. Poor Francis. If there was anything worse than being born a sixth-born son, it was being born a bastard.

Thomas Francis of Savoy

My 10th Great-Grandfather
Thomas Francis of Savoy

We can blame Francis’s father—Thomas Francis of Savoy, Prince of Carignano, Count of Couldn’t-Keep-It-In-His-Pants—for this socio-economic nose dive. If Prince Thomas had married Francis’s mother, Francis would have inherited the princedom Carignano. Instead, Francis was shipped off to Eastern Canada where he worked as a general laborer until his death.

For the next 250 years, my ancestors were stuck at the bottom rung of society. Things changed drastically in the 20th century…for the better. My parents and grandparents, like so many others born in this century, utilized education and perseverance to join the ever-growing middle class.

So let’s say I go back to the dukes of Savoy and quickly trace their descendants until the present day, following eldest sons whenever possible. If I continue down the line until I reach someone approximately my age, I land on Milena Gaubert.

Born to Princess Helene of Yugoslavia in 1988, Milena is the great-great granddaughter to the last king of Italy. I could find little on Milena. In a tabloid article from 2011, Milena lent her father–an aid to former French president Sarcozy–support when her mother named him in the Karachi scandal. That’s it. Milena may be living a Paris Hilton lifestyle, but if she is, she’s quiet about it.

Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia

Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia

The dead end was pretty dissatisfying, so I researched Milena’s relatives, discovering an Uncle who was a little less shy.

Prince Dimitri, 50, has relatives in eleven royal families. He was raised near the palace at Versailles, though his family summered in a Renaissance palace in Vaglia, Italy. Dimitri always had a love for jewelry and now runs a jewelry firm bearing his name. Before this, he was the senior vice president of the jewelry department of Sotheby’s.

Sigh. The life that could have been… I could have been a jet-setting, bigwig who designed sparkly things.

Still, I can’t ignore the bright side of my own ancestry. If Francis of Savoy hadn’t been sent to Canada in the seventeenth century, he wouldn’t have met my 9th great-grandmother, and I wouldn’t have been born. When putting it that way, the somewhat tragic trail of my ancestry seems a little less tragic. A million tiny things happened over the course of history so that I could be here, typing this blog post. Surely designing jewelry is a tad more lucrative, but they say money can’t buy you happiness. I may not be rich, but I’m pretty darn happy.


“Affaire Karachi : Une Fille Gaubert Accuse Sa Mère De Chercher à Se Venger.” Le Point.fr. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
“Henry II, Duke of Brunswick-Grubenhagen.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 July 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
“Janus of Cyprus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 July 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
“Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Mar. 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
Remos, Ana B. “Dimitri of Yugoslavia: A Prince of the 21st Century.” AzureAzure: A Privaieged Life. AzureAzure.com, n.d. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.
“Thomas Francis, Prince of Carignano.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.