Bad Decisions in History: featuring Olga of Kiev

Olga of Kiev is one of those historical figures whose fascinating legacy almost seems like the stuff of fiction, and while it’s possible that her tales of her exploits have been slightly exaggerated over the centuries, her life was still remarkable and, frankly, crazy. Olga’s ruthless decimation of a rival tribe left her a dark reputation as a vengeful and cunning warrior, but her later strong support of Christianity means that she’s also considered a saint.

Born to a family of Varyag (Viking) origin, Olga of Kiev co-reigned over Kievan Rus (part of modern day Russia, the link has a picture of the map) during the 900s. Her husband, Igor of Kiev, was killed around 945 by the Derevlian tribe, a neighbouring Slavic group who had been forced in the past to pay tribute to the Kievan Rus. When Igor rode out to collect tribute, the Derevlians revolted and instead killed him.

Bad decision: Angering Olga of Kiev

Since Igor and Olga’s son, Svyatoslav, was still a young child, Olga ruled Kievan Rus as regent until the time he would come of age. Though this gave her increased power within her realm, her husband’s death was a personal tragedy, and his murder by the Derevlians threatened the stability of the Kievan Rus rule. Olga plotted revenge.

This icicle isn’t as cold as Olga’s revenge

The perfect opportunity came when Prince Mal of the Derevlians approached Olga with an envoy of matchmakers, proposing an alliance of the two kingdoms through marriage. Feigning interest, Olga insisted upon honouring the envoys through a public ceremony, during which they would be carried in their boats into the city. She also quietly ordered for deep trenches to be dug within Kiev. When the Derevlian envoys were paraded into the city, carried in their boats, she had them thrown into the trench and buried alive.

Next, acting quickly enough that news of the envoys demise had not yet reached him, Olga sent a message to the Prince Mal, requesting a group of his best warriors to escort her back to Dereva. When the Derevlians arrived, they were directed to the bathhouse to clean up from the journey before being invited to meet her. Once they were inside, Olga had the bathhouse locked and burned to the ground.

Next, Olga herself went to Iskorosten, the capital of Dereva, on the pretext of holding a funeral for her late husband before she could consider moving forward with remarriage. Apparently the murder of Derevlian envoys was either still unknown, or explained away as a terrible accident, because she was welcomed with a grand feast that included lots of drinking. Once everyone was good and drunk, Olga ordered everyone killed. Presumably her own men had stayed sober, because around five thousand Derevlians were slaughtered while they slept it off. This scheme is a bit reminiscent of the fall of Troy, isn’t it?

Don’t trust that seemingly innocent face

By now, Olga had exacted a harsh toll of revenge, but she wasn’t finished yet. She declared war the following year, and laid siege on the city of Iskorosten. Eventually, the Derevlians tried to surrender, but Olga was not appeased by the tribute offered, since they were starving by now and had little to offer. As well, it seems tribute was not her ultimate goal, for she had other plans in mind. According to the tales, she asked for three sparrows and three pigeons from each household, which must have seemed like a random but ultimately harmless request.

It wasn’t though, because by now we know that Olga was outrageously cunning and ruthless. She had rags dipped in sulphur, lit on fire, and tied to the birds. Being released back to the skies, the birds flew home to their nests, dragging the burning rags (presumably on long enough strings that they could manage the journey back home) with them. The city burned like tinder under the rain of bird-brought fire, and Olga reckoned her revenge complete.

She continued to hold power even when her son came of age, holding Kiev while he was on military campaigns. She also turned her attentions to spreading Christianity after she converted sometime in the mid-900s. For her efforts, she was eventually canonized as Saint Olga.

Outcome: Revenge involving traps, murder, sieges, the obliteration of a city – and then religion.


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Bad Decisions in History: featuring a Flood of Molasses

When you imagine a flood, you probably picture something like white-capped water spilling over riverbanks or water swirling through the street from a broken pipe or hydrant. Almost certainly something with water, anyway. Not molasses – but that’s just what happened almost a century ago in Boston, Massachusetts.

Bad decision: Failing to properly test the molasses storage tank, which was also poorly constructed; hiding proof of existing leaks.

The idea of molasses flooding the streets is ludicrous, almost amusing, even – until the magnitude of this disaster becomes clear.  The molasses tank was located at the Purity Distilling Company. At over 50 feet tall, the storage tank had a holding capacity of just over 2 million gallons, which is quite a lot of molasses.

The affected area is circled

In January of 1919, the tank failed, while containing tons of molasses. As the rivets of the tank burst, reportedly making a machine-gun like sound, the entire tank collapsed with an earth-shaking rumble and unleashed a tidal wave of molasses that was 25 feet at its highest point, and which crashed through the streets at about 35 miles per hour (56 kilometres). It really gives a different meaning to that old saying, ‘slower than molasses in January’, doesn’t it?

The force of the molasses damaged nearby buildings, shoving them right off their foundations, and tipped a railroad car off the tracks. The area was flooded with a depth of up to 3 feet of molasses. People and animals who had the misfortune to be in the flood zone struggled and thrashed to escape the sticky, viscous liquid. Horses apparently succumbed like flies on fly-paper, and people who were swept off their feet by the initial blast fought to free themselves. Bystanders, police, Red Cross, and army personnel soon waded into the waist-deep mess to help pull out survivors, while others tended to the injured. After four days, the search for victims ended. Many of the deceased were difficult to recognize because they were so coated in molasses. Altogether, the flood claimed 21 lives, injured 150 more people, as well as killing or wounding several horses and dogs. For months afterward, many people suffered from a cough after breathing the sweet, molasses tainted air. The clean-up took weeks, and it’s said the area still smelled like molasses on hot days for years afterward.

How did a terrible disaster like this occur? It was partially to do with the molasses itself, which can be fermented to produce rum, which means that fermented molasses can contain ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol. Outside factors such as the air temperature also played a role; the temperature rose significantly during a short time period, and would have assisted in raising the pressure within the tank.

These two are the uncontrollable factors, but there were negligent items that contributed to the disaster. The storage tank was also cheaply constructed, and had not been sufficiently tested. An inquiry after the flood proved that standard safety tests for the time, such as filling the tank with water to check for leaks, had never been conducted. In fact, the tank had been leaking the whole time, and it was painted brown in an attempt to hide the leaks (which seem to have been fairly well known anyway, for local residents allegedly collected leaking molasses for their personal cooking use). As well, an investigation many years later found that the steel was only half as thick as it should have been (even for 1919’s less strict building standards) and it did not contain manganese, which mean the tank was quite brittle.

After the disaster, local residents of Boston joined a class-action law suit against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which had since bought Purity Distilling. The company attempted and failed to attribute the disaster to an explosion caused by anarchists, and ended up paying hefty settlement fees.

Outcome: 21 deaths, 150 injuries, more deaths and injuries in animals, a gigantic mess that took weeks to clean up, prolonged coughs.


Smashed vehicles and debris sit in a puddle of molasses on Commercial Street on Jan. 16, 1919, the day after a giant tank in the North End collapsed, sending a wave of an estimated 2.3 million gallons of molasses through the streets of Boston.


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Bad Decisions in History: featuring Alboin, King of the Lombards

Through history, most royal marriages were made for political rather than romantic reasons. Sometimes this worked out well – both halves of the married pair got what they wanted, which was usually strategic alliances, wealth and power. Sometimes it was rather disastrous, especially if it involved a marriage by conquest as was the case for Alboin, King of the Lombards, and Rosamund, daughter of the leader of the Gepids.

Bad decision: Marrying the daughter of one’s conquered rival and treating her as such, like an enemy instead of a new ally, taunting her with the victory.

First of all, ‘who are the Lombards?’ you might be asking. Or, ‘I’ve never heard of the Gepids.’ Honestly, neither had I until started looking into this bad decision in history. Briefly, The Lombards, a Germanic people, ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from about 568 to 774. The Gepids, an East Germanic tribe, were rivals of the Lombards.

Alboin had been king of the Lombards since 560. As kings often did, he liked to conquer territory, and had successfully captured some of the territory that the Gepids previously held. In retaliation, Cunimund, the King of the Gepids, launched an attack to try and take back this land. In the ensuing battles, the Gepids were defeated. Cunimund himself was slain in 567, and his decapitated head taken back to Alboin, along with a high-ranking prisoner –  Cunimund’s daughter, Rosamund.

This woodcut of Alboin is from 1493, about 900 years after his death, so who knows if it’s accurate. I imagined him a little less wizened and a little more warrior-like. 

Alboin needed a male heir to succeed his reign, and since he was a widower, he decided to marry the daughter of his vanquished enemy. It was absolutely not a love match. Rosamund hated Alboin, who in turn was known to be cruel to her. Supposedly, Alboin liked to walk around with Cunimund’s skull hanging from his belt for all to see. Seems a bit of a bulky way to taunt someone, but was probably quite effective. During a banquet, Alboin reportedly forced Rosamund to drink from her dead father’s skull. Since skull cups were sometimes used as trophies or ritualistic items through history, it’s quite possible this story is true. If Alboin had the skull at a banquet, evidently worked into a cup form (which would involve removing the lower part of the skull), it seems safe to assume he probably drank from it himself at times.

Rosamund was not entirely without resources, however. As the daughter of the late Gepid king, she undoubtedly had some loyal supporters, even if many of them were prisoners. She took a lover, a man called Helmichis, who was Alboin’s arms bearer, and together they plotted Alboin’s death. As the story goes, they needed a third accomplice, and attempted to enlist the aid of Peredeo, a man known for this strength. Peredeo refused, so Rosamund seduced in him the disguise of a servant. After learning that he had committed adultery, even if unwitting, with Alboin’s wife, Peredeo agreed to help kill the king rather than risk his retribution.

It’s difficult to say if all of these colourful details are true, but if so, they certainly showcase Rosamund’s determination to avenge her father. The plan went forward; Alboin went to bed drunk after a feast, and Helmichis and Peredeo entered his chamber with murderous intent. Alboin sprang out of bed, but since Rosamund had also ensured that his sword was removed (or tied to the bedpost, in some versions of the story), he was forced to defend himself with nothing more than a footstool. It’s unclear if Helmichis or Peredeo struck the killing blow; both have been assigned as the sole murderer in various accounts.

Alboin’s death struck a blow to the new Germanic entity he’d been creating through his consolidating his conquered territory, for he had no fitting successor. I have a feeling this probably would have pleased Rosamund. This is the end of Alboin’s bad decision; he treated his wife so badly that she had him assassinated. The rest of Rosamund’s story is dramatic though, so we’ll cover that, too.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Rosamund and Helmichis married. He most likely planned to succeed Alboin on the Lombard throne, but received little support from the various duchies of the kingdom. Rosamund and Helmichis were forced to flee – but not before collecting most of Alboin’s stash of treasure. Rosamund supposedly took another lover, a man called Longinus, probably in an attempt to secure another powerful ally. Or perhaps she was tiring of Helmichis; considering the arc of their relationship, one has to wonder if there was ever really any affection between them or if they were just using each other for their own goals. Longinus wanted to marry Rosamund, but that pesky Helmichis was in the way, so she decided to poison him.

Here’s a suitably sinister depiction of Rosamund

As a seasoned murderer himself, Helmichis suspected Rosamund’s plan. He forced her to drink the poison first, and then consumed the rest himself afterward. I bet you didn’t see a Romeo and Juliet style double death coming! I certainly didn’t.

I’m starting to wonder if the real bad decision here is getting involved with Rosamund, queen of ruthlessness.

Outcome: Lots of murder, lots of ulterior-motive seductions, a setback to a growing empire.


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Bad Decisions in History: featuring King John

King John is probably one of the most remembered and most vilified kings from English history. He was a complicated monarch, his rule marked by inherited debts and conflicts with rebel barons, which eventually led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

John did not support the loss of his feudal privileges, and signed the Magna Carta only to appease the escalating tensions held by the rebel barons. Pope Innocent took John’s side on this, viewing the charter as ‘shameful and demeaning’ and excommunicated the rebel barons.


In this depiction of King John granting the Magna Carta, no one looks happy, so that seems pretty accurate.

This might have been some incentive for John to break his word (or maybe not, since he’d already had papal disagreements of his own and had been excommunicated before), but it’s likely that he never really intended to follow the letter of the peace accord. By October of 1216, John had broken the charter and the ‘First Barons’ War’ had begun.

Bad Decision: Sending the baggage caravan, containing the crown jewels, along a quicker route – a causeway only accessible at low tide.

Since he was travelling all around England, attempting to subdue the rebel forces, John had good cause for his sense of urgency. After directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle, John travelled to Bishops Lynn (now called Kings Lynn, due to Henry VIII’s intense restructuring of the church), taking care to travel around East Anglia, which was held by the rebels. To do so, he took the safe route around the Wash, a large marshy area along the coast of England, separating East Anglia from Lincolnshire.

The Wash at low tide

The Wash at low tide

The Wash is an estuary, a partially enclosed body of water that has access to the sea, and it’s fed by four rivers. In King John’s time, it was even wider than it is today, but when the tide was out, it was possible to cross it, although the causeway would have been very muddy.

While in Bishops Lynn, John fell ill, most likely with dysentery. He was forced to change his plans, and decided to leave Bishops Lynn via the town of Wisbech. He sent the baggage wagons, which contained the king’s wardrobe and the crown jewels, across the mouth of the Wash, which was a shorter, faster route, since the tide was out.

Unfortunately, the baggage caravan – which may have included up to three thousand members of the King’s entourage – was too slow, and the wagons too heavy, to traverse the muddy terrain of the Wash. The wagons began to sink into the mud, and though the men struggled to pull them free with horses, the incoming tide made it impossible. Soon everything was buried in mud and seawater – including the crown jewels.


The accident probably took place near Sutton Bridge, which crosses the River Nene, but for most of history, it’s been impossible to ascertain the exact area, especially since the landscape has changed over time. More recently, modern technology such as astronomical photography and laser study has potentially found a way to find the exactly location – and the treasure, if it exists.

Some historical accounts of the loss of the crown jewels are more suspicious, suggesting that John left the jewels behind in Bishops Lynn on purpose and arranged for their “loss” afterward. Since the jewels have never come to light in Bishops Lynn, or anywhere nearby, afterward, it seems more likely that, being ill and harried by the rebels, King John simply made a mistake.

In any case, he wasn’t around to personally witness many consequences of the disaster at the Wash. King John died of his illness about a week later, on October 19th, 1216.

Outcome: A disastrous shortcut, loss of valuable currency, a bit of an embarrassing legacy, although the enthusiasm it provides to modern treasure hunters might overcome that.

king_johns_tombI mentioned at the start of this post that King John was a complicated monarch, and this incident at the Wash really doesn’t do justice to that. I must recommend one of my favourite historical novels of all time to do that, Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman.


Bad Decisions in History: featuring the Battle of Carrhae

In 55 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus felt like he had something to prove. He was already widely regarded as one of the richest men in Rome, and had recently been elected consul for the second time. He was also the third man in the political trio now known as the First Triumvirate, which also included Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Although the trio had formed an alliance to gain enough power to overcome the senate’s refusal to support some bills they wanted, the Triumvirate is generally not considered to have been a union of true political beliefs. Rather, each of the men, powerful for different reasons, sought further personal advancement.

Bust of Crassus

Bust of Crassus

At 60, Crassus already had plenty of money and land, as well as political office, but he didn’t have the impressive military accolades of his fellow Triumvirs. Caesar was well known for his conquest of Gaul, and was also popular with the people. Pompey had achieved great successes against pirates in the East Mediterranean. To remain a match for the rest of the Triumvirate, Crassus needed a dazzling conquest as well. He decided to invade Parthia.


The Parthian Empire was made of up of much of modern day Iraq and Iran.

Bad Decision: Targeting Parthia for an unprovoked invasion simply because it was known to be wealthy, and other eastern provinces had been successfully conquered by Rome in the past; rushing into war by not taking time to evaluate the military strength of Parthia, or to plan a strong campaign.


Some of Crassus’ contemporaries also saw this as a bad decision, mostly because Parthia had a treaty with Rome. For this reason, Cicero dubbed it a war with no cause. Crassus proceeded with his plan anyway, departing Rome in November of 55 BCE. He first led his forces overland, through modern Turkey. Along the way, several cities in Parthian territory capitulated without a fight. Crassus decided to garrison these cities, which depleted some of his numbers. He wintered in Syria, waiting for both the passing of the rains and the arrival of Gallic cavalry, led by his son Publius Crassus, to strengthen his forces. During this time, the Parthians sent emissaries to inquire if the presence of the legions was an official declaration of war by Rome, or a personal raid initiated by Crassus. Though the latter was technically more correct, Crassus was consul, so he had the power to declare it an official conflict.

Unsurprisingly, the Parthians were not pleased by this, but they didn’t hesitate to take decisive action. The king, Orodes II, led part of his army into Armenia, to prevent the Armenians from joining forces with the Romans. The Armenian king, Artavasdes, had offered Crassus reinforcements, as well as to let him cross through Armenia. Crassus declined the route, choosing a more direct one, and now due to the actions of Orodes II, he was cut off from their aid as well. Artavasdes was experienced and would have been an asset to Crassus.  The Armenian armoured cavalry also would have been a match for that of the Parthians. Aside from limiting Crassus’ reinforcements, and punishing the Armenians, the Parthian king Orodes II also used this move to place his army on the distant flank of the advancing Romans.

At the same time, the Parthian regional governor, the Surena, marched with the remainder of the army to oppose Crassus’ advance. Roman scouts brought news of this back to Crassus, who formed his army into a long, thin line. Since this would have made it impossible to secure his flanks in the open terrain against a mounted army, Crassus changed his mind, instead ordering the men to re-form into a large hollow square. This was not a rehearsed battlefield drill, and would have taken a long time to maneuver, with the troops baking under the sun. They marched in this formation, with the baggage, camp-followers, light infantry and the reserve cavalry in the centre, crossing a stream and continuing until they sighted the Surena’s forces.

The Parthian cavalry wore armour of polished metal scales sewn to leather, and had equipped their horses similarly. The armour was both protective and flexible enough not to hinder the movement of the mounted arches. In contrast, the Roman legionaries wore a short-sleeved mail tunic, which reached to mid-thigh. It was a better defense against a cutting sword blow than the penetrating stab of a lance or arrow.

Parthian cataphracts

Parthian cataphracts.  

Of the Surena’s forces, about a thousand of the mounted warriors wore that shining armour. He had another ten thousand or so pony-mounted steppe tribesman, not as heavily armed, but the horses were nimble and the archers accurate. Prior to approaching, the Surena had ordered his cavalry to cover their armour, and then to remove the coverings all at once, in an attempt to intimidate the Romans with the dazzling reflection of the sunlight on the metal. By all accounts, the Romans were not fazed by this, and held their ground admirably, braced for a charge that would never come.

Instead the Parthians employed two main tactics. The first was a ‘scythian’ formation, where a small group would in a circle ride within range of the Roman legionaries, firing when nearest, and then nocking the next arrow in time to rotate back to the front. It was effectively an endless hail of arrows. The archers also employed ‘Parthian shot’, a skillful tactic which involved riding directly away from the enemy. The archer would then skew around in the saddle and shoot straight behind him, over the horse’s hindquarters. Since only about 1,500 of the Roman light troops had bows to counter, and unless they could catch the horses against an impassable terrain, like a river, there wasn’t a lot they could do against these tactics. (In another 150 years, the Romans would have developed mobile bolt throwers with a range of 400 metres).

Trying to avoid arrow damage, the legionaries locked their shields into a ‘testudo formation’, forming a nearly impenetrable wall. At this point, the Parthian Surena ordered his cataphracts to target sections of the Roman line and charge. This caused panic and inflicted heavy casualties. When the Romans tried to loosen their formation in order to regain some ability for melee combat, the cataphracts would simply retreat and leave room for the archers to resume their deadly onslaught.

Crassus sent his son Publius forward, leading the Gallic cavalry to attack the Parthian mounted archers. Publius and his cavalry, 500 foot archers, and eight cohorts of legionaries chased the Parthians (still employing Parthian shot) far away from the main square. At this point, the Parthians turned to face the Romans, and reinforcements joined them from the flanks. At last expecting a charge, the Roman forces under Publius halted. Since this made them a target for the unceasing archers, they retreated to a hillock and formed a shield wall. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop the archers. Of the 5,500 who sallied for under Publius, only 500 survived. They were taken prisoner. Publius was killed, and his head mounted on a spear as the Parthians returned to Crassus’ square formation, resuming attack.

At night, the Parthians withdrew and made camp. The surviving Romans, under Crassus, retreated to the town of Carrhae (modern Harran). They were forced to leave 4,000 wounded men on the field, who were slaughtered or captured by the Parthians in the morning. The Surena arrived at Carrhae and demanded Crassus be handed over. This was refused, but since there were not enough supplies in the city for a siege, Crassus crept out at night with his men, trying to escape north. In a final blow, the Romans either got lost, or were led astray by their Arab guide. Eventually the Parthians found them, and offered terms. Before negotiations could be settled, a brawl broke out among the two sides, and Crassus was killed. The remainder of the Roman army surrendered. Overall, the entire campaign was a devastating defeat for the Romans.

Outcome: Thousands of deaths, thousands of Roman soldiers sold into slavery, a situation of altogether being embarrassingly outclassed and unprepared. The Romans admitted to 20,000 casualties, while 10,000 were captured, and 5,000 – 6,000 fought their way out (including Cassius, who would later have a role in Caesar’s assassination). Crassus and Publius were both killed, and the First Triumvirate broken. Parthian losses were minimal.

Bust of Publius Crassus

Bust of Publius Crassus


My main source for this post was Battles of the Ancient World, which I highly recommend if you enjoy ancient history and are the kind of person who thinks a book of battle tactics and formations is a perfectly acceptable item to keep on your coffee table (like me).


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Bad Decisions in History: Using Ceruse

Through much of European history, pale skin was considered one of the most important standards of beauty, particularly for women. It tied into social structure and a strictly hierarchical class system. If a lady was porcelain-skinned, it meant she was wealthy enough not to have to work outside. Suntans were for peasants, basically. But since flawless alabaster skin was considered a pinnacle of beauty, plenty of noble ladies still took further troubles to whiten their skin, using a makeup paste called ceruse.

Bad Decision: Using ceruse

The best ceruse, producing the whitest effect, came from Venice. It was in paste form, and would be applied to the face with a damp cloth, blending it over the skin in an even layer. In order to make it stay better, women would sometimes mix it with egg white. The egg white would crack under too much facial movement, however, so smiling was strictly off limits if ceruse had been applied in such a stiff mask.


Since lead poisoning can also cause hearing loss, avoidance of smiling might have become easier for the ceruse wearers once they couldn’t hear conversations or jokes anymore. (And now Grumpy Cat is rightfully scowling at me, too).

No matter where the ceruse had been imported from though, it contained white lead. It was highly toxic on human skin, often causing skin irritations, which then required more ceruse to cover up. It caused a horrifying array of other problems as well. Symptoms of lead poisoning range from gastrointestinal problems, nausea, muscle pain, kidney issues, cardiovascular issues, and nervous system problems, and loss of hearing. If you can think of a symptom, lead poisoning can probably cause it. Some of the symptoms, like the skin irritations, probably would have caused the wearer to rely more heavily on ceruse. Resulting insomnia and sleep disturbance would have caused dark under-eye circles, for example.

As if none of this is bad enough, ceruse also tended to have a depilatory effect, meaning that some chronic users lost their eyebrows. To compensate they wore fake ones made of – wait for it – mouse fur.


Nope, nope, nope. Wearing them or having the job of making mouse fur eyebrows.

Other forms of makeup could be toxic as well, including lip rouge, which often contained mercury. Although some upper-class, fashionable men throughout history undoubtedly wore ceruse at times at well, its ravages took a greater toll on women, who were more likely to regularly wear the cosmetic. However, it had its popularity with men as well, particularly cabinetmakers, who used the paste to fill the porous open grain of oak planks. Truly an all-purpose invention!

Famous wearers of ceruse include Queen Elizabeth I, who began wearing it after contracting smallpox around the age of twenty-nine. She relied on ceruse to hide the scars, and later, to hide the corrosion caused by the poisonous paste. Prolonged use of the cosmetic is generally believed to be culpable in her death in 1603.

A hundred years later (clearly the lesson of ceruse’s danger hadn’t fully sunk into the collective consciousness yet), Maria Gunning, famed beauty and the Countess of Coventry, also wore it regularly. As it gradually ate her skin away, she wore it even more. She died of lead poisoning at the shockingly young age of twenty-seven, in 1760.

maria gunning

Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry

Outcome: Creation of a vicious cycle of requiring more ceruse to hide its ravages, nearly every symptom imaginable, death from lead poisoning.

From our current perspective in history, it’s easy to look back and scoff a little that people used such a toxic substance for centuries, but medicine wasn’t as advanced to understand some of the internal symptoms, like renal issues and nervous system issues. Hindsight makes all the difference. Let’s hope our future descendants won’t look back on some of our cosmetic inventions with similar shock.


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Research in Historical Fiction

Research is a very significant aspect of my writing life. I’ve spent hours chasing down facts, and I know I’m not alone. (Which is comforting, actually). I’d like to share some of my favourite tips for historical research. I’ve written about time periods ranging from the French Revolution, the Golden Age of Piracy, and Belle Époque, and the reign of Mary Tudor, so research has taken over large sections of my life many times. I’m interested to hear your research tips, too, if you’d like to share.

Read A Lot. Read Widely.

When I first start researching a project, I never quite know what I’m looking for. At the beginning of my research for the novel that ended up being The Wardrobe Mistress, I had a vague idea that my character was going to work in the kitchens at Versailles, maybe making fancy pastries and soft white bread. She’d be the kind of girl with rosy cheeks from the heat of the ovens, and flour or sugar dusted through her hair. She’d probably be too generous sharing the fruits (or baked goods) of her labours.

Instead, I discovered the significance of tricolour rosettes to demonstrate revolutionary support – or not. I learned how fashion played a prevalent role in the French Revolution. My sweet kitchen maid turned into a cool-headed girl who could assess someone based on their outfit, could fix your hem in thirty seconds, and had an appreciation for beauty and occasionally a tongue as sharp as her sewing needle.


Go to the Library

It might sound obvious, but I’m a huge fan of my library’s system to put items on hold, so they deliver them to the branch closest to my house. I just have to go grab them off the hold shelf, conveniently located near the door, and I’m often out of there in two minutes. Not that I don’t like being at the library, but I have a full time job and a hefty writing workload, so efficiencies are precious. I rely on the holds system more than I probably should.

However, when I’m starting out a new project, I search the library catalogue for one book on the topic, preferably with a broad take on the subject matter. To start, I’m not looking for something like “French Fashion and What it Meant in Front of the Guillotine” (Hm. I should write that, with that title). Just “The French Revolution.” Don’t get into specifics yet. Then, go to that section of the library and find it on the shelf. It will be surrounded by at least ten other books that you’ve never heard of, most of which will prove invaluable to your research. It’s like the best treasure hunt ever. Let the Dewey Decimal System help you.

dewey decimal

I never thought I’d tell anyone the Dewey Decimal system is cool, but it is. The 900 section has been a good friend to me.

I’ve heard some advice from other avid-researchers and writers that they like to start with the kids section. Apparently it’s a great way to get down to the basics of what you want to research. I have not tried this yet, but I intend to.

Get Visual

If you can, travel to some of the sites you’re researching. This isn’t always possible, of course. I didn’t manage to visit Versailles during my research for The Wardrobe Mistress. Fortunately, we have the internet, and that is the next best thing. Use Google Street View to explore the area, if you can. Even if the landscape is modernized, the general layout might still give you an idea of how it would have looked. Look at photographs of the area for the same reason. If your time period is far before the invention of cameras, check out paintings from the time period. Read travel books or talk to someone who has been able to visit the area.

It's not a photograph, but this depiction of the view of Versailles as it would have looked in 1793 was still helpful to me.

It’s not a photograph, but this depiction of the view of Versailles as it would have looked in 1793 was still helpful to me.

Look for Primary Sources

Reading source material written during the same time period that you’re researching is extremely valuable. It will give you an idea of the way people spoke, what they found important, and what kind of values they had. Depending on the time period, you also might get a glimpse at an alternate view. History is written by the victors, so they say, and you might get a peek at the ‘losing’ side through primary sources.

Also Seek out New Research

Scientific journals grow outdated much faster than historical books, but in both cases, it does happen. When new books or articles are published, new theories and viewpoints are built upon existing research. It happens with history, too. If you’re researching Anne Boleyn, even though she’s been dead for almost five hundred years, you’ll find different interpretations of her life in books published in the 1970s compared to something more recent.

Look for the Little Things

The little things are both the joy and the bane of writing historical fiction. One minute, you’re happily writing along, nearing the end of a scene. “He sipped his coffee,” you might write. Wait – did they have coffee yet? Time to hit the books (or internet) to confirm!

An English coffeehouse from the 17th century.

An English coffeehouse from the 17th century.

The little things are always a surprise. You never know when or what you’re going to need to know until it comes up as a gaping maw in your manuscript. The little things are proof that research never really ends.

Small, specific items of information can also be the toughest to track down. It makes the reward all that much more exciting when you do find them.

Have Fun

Research can drag at times, but not for long. Researching a topic you chose, that you are passionate about, is a lot closer to the fascinating end than the dull end of the spectrum. Chasing down facts can have its challenges, but on the whole, it should be an enjoyable one.

By the time your manuscript is complete, you might be sick of the time period altogether. It’ll come back around though – trust me. By the time I finished The Wardrobe Mistress, the last thing I wanted to do was read another word about the French Revolution. But when the editorial revisions came around, even though I was supposed to be cutting out a whole bunch of my word count, but I still managed to work in a new tidbit about Marie Antoinette’s perfumer I’d discovered in the meantime, because my exhaustion with the time period didn’t last long. It just needed a recovery.


What are your favourite research tips? I’d love to here them! Same goes for anecdotes of research triumphs or trials.