The Woman Between the Lines

Alas, that such a seminal document is in private ownership.

It hails all the way from . Ur, that is. Once a great city near the mouth of the Euphrates, the metropolis was watched over by the god of the moon in what is now Iraq. In our palindromic equivalent before Christ – the 21st century BC – the people of Ur built a ziggurat, a terraced pyramid, a beautifully preserved shrine to the moon god whose name means: ‘house whose name creates terror.’

Dr Tom L Lee, a Michigan collector of historical documents, says it was excavations prior to the 1920s which yielded this possible gem.

He claims to have bought the writings – a stone tablet crammed with ancient cuneiform – from the grandson of one of the chief archaeologists on site prior to 1920.

Should its provenance be genuine, this is a 4,000 year old receipt for a drink of beer.

Dr Lee translates the writings thus: “Ur-Amma acknowledges receiving from his brewer, Alulu, 5 sila (about 4 1/2 liters) of the ‘best’ beer.”

The collector tells The Free Library: ” As literate scribes were few and far between 4,000 years ago, only very important things and events were memorialized in writing. Beer played a very different role in ancient Ur, and in other contemporaneous cultures, than it does in the present world. then, beer was also a principal food source, a source of nourishment.”

Beer in those days was thick, and men drank it through a straw so they didn’t have to confront the bitter solids left over from the fermentation process. Egypt, Greece, Babylon, they were all dependent on it: and while the Romans preferred their wine, Mediaeval people were back to beer as a safe staple drink.

Before the 15th century brewers in England were not allowed to produce ale and beer together; beer had hops and ale did not;but by the time we meet our woman between the lines, ale and beer seem all one.

The strains of an old diary floated past me yesterday: our talk channel, BBC Radio 4, is serialising it in its Woman’s Hour slot this week. And for a moment I could not work out who was writing.

I should have known. Monday evening: and Samuel Pepys and his wife Elisabeth are on the road, stopping for sustenance at an inn. And I chuckled: not because of what Pepys wrote, but because of what he didn’t write.

The pair stop at Buntingford, where “my wife, by drinking some cold beer, being hot herself, presently after β€˜lighting, begins to be sick, and became so pale, and I alone with her in a great chamber there, that I thought she would have died…”

I, too, have become mightily sick after drinking cold beer.

Pepys continues the tale of poor Elisabeth, the unfortunate victim of a surfeit of beer: “….and so in great horror, and having a great tryall of my true love and passion for her, called the mayds and mistresse of the house, and so with some strong water (spirits), and after a little vomit, she came to be pretty well again.”

I’ll bet.

The age-old story.I can just imagine Sam Pepys, flapping about his wife after too much beer, trying his very best to make her well again.

Most of what we know of beautiful Elisabeth Pepys comes from Sam. And there’s precious little: yet what a lovely, strange, chaotic relationship they did have, what with Sams weaknesses with the household maid, and his idiosyncratic, passionate relationship with this woman whom he married when she was just 14 years old, daughter of a French Catholic-turned-protestant.

Her actions are often erratic: writing down intimate details about Sam – in English, not French – so that all the servants might read and share; Sam refers to her ‘little angry talks’. They separated very soon after their marriage, coming back together just before Sam started the diaries.

Yet they have moments which are so exuberant their joy is infectious, like the day he arrives home to find her ‘extraordinary fine’, “with her flowered tabby gown that she made two years ago, now laced exceeding pretty; …” and they go out in the carriage to swank. “I did not see any coach more pretty, though more gay, than ours, all the day,” he writes happily.

His mentions of Elisabeth cease abruptly. She died suddenly of typhoid in 1669, and left Sam in pieces. His letters record him apologising for not attending meetings for a month after her death, and failing to answer letters.

Poor Sam. And poor Elisabeth: frustrated historians have ever since battled to put together the pieces and reveal the woman behind Pepys’s lines, tantalising as his passing mentions are.

But instead we are left with an unusually vivid shadow.

It’s enough to persuade me to read the diaries all over again.


29 thoughts on “The Woman Between the Lines

  1. Ah to go out in a carriage and swank – haven’t done that in ages. I must tell my husband – a former beer plumber – this tale of ale that you regale (nb, a beer plumber is a plumber who specialises in beer πŸ˜‰ )

  2. I wonder how much truth there is in them, because it’s only one perspective. My blog is my diary and the Hub doesn’t often recognise himself, if I’m honest πŸ™‚

    1. Good point, and one the Pepys historians have grumbled about on a regular basis. I fear we will never know the real Elisabeth Pepys: we’re destined only to see her through Sam’s lens.

    1. Hi Squaldroons! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment, and for those kind words. I’ve popped along to see you – if this is your first blog, welcome πŸ™‚

  3. Another here who has not read Pepys–although I seem to remember some brief mention of him waaaaay back in high school–and I’ve not thought of reading the Diaries either. Now my interest is piqued. but I might simply go here for starters:
    I am intrigued by the link to “- how to write a blog they’ll read in 100 years.”

  4. I’m always fascinated by women from this era. They are mythic, in a way, because we can usually only know them through their husbands. I will have to download some Pepys and re-read him in homage to this post.

    And find some good beer to go along with it. πŸ™‚ I hope you’re feeling much better today, Kate.

  5. I’ve read only small bits of Pepys’ diary. Never thought I would want to read them, but you’ve sparked my interest. I remember something about an argument with his wife, and an assessment of another woman’s “fine taille.” Amazing what will stick in our minds for forty years.

    1. Indeed….had a wonderful time listening to his adventures when he was summonsed to appear in court, climbing ladders and scaling roofs, and braving the Thames on a dangerous day to avoid the thugs sent to apprehend him.

  6. Sir Thomas Moore was ridiculed for drinking water. But I have always Always wondered how any ancient societies could flourish if all they drank was beer or wine or some milk now and then. Even the kids had to be drunk all the time. Sir Thomas Moore was ridiculed for drinking water. Martin Luther loved his beer as most Germans do.

  7. Be careful what you put in print. In a future historical context maybe some blog material will survive as a picture of our current lives, relationships, and drinking habits! I’m certain I never read Pepys beyond a few quoted references, but you’ve given him some life and caused me to think I might be very interested. And a good beer or two can sometimes make an otherwise not so great day just a little more pleasant. I think Mrs. Pepys knew that πŸ™‚ Debra

  8. Now I want to read those diaries.. fantastic and reminds us that we need to leave paper copies of our work for future generations to find and puzzle over.. c

  9. A peep into Peepys’ life. I have never consumed enough cold beer to feel ill. There were occasions involving wine or spiritous liquors….

    Somewhere in the clutter of my mind ones a statement that if two dormice were mating in a walnut, Pepys would somehow have squeezed in to observe and write about it. I wonder if his blog would have been a record breaker?

  10. I’ve never read them, Kate – so many books, so little time!
    I have a digital pile awaiting my attention but it’s nearly time to go back to university after taking a semester off, so not much time for leisure reading coming up 😦

  11. It’s so easy to take for granted the precious in our lives, we do it now with photos. When one departs suddenly, traumatically we often realise and regret just how few of good quality there are. Missing posters and funeral orders of service tell that story too often. πŸ™‚

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