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OK, this will be a historical thread about Emilia Bassano Lanier, thought by many to have been Shakespeare's mistress. She was also one of the first published female poets in England, a courtesan, a courtier at Elizabeth's court, and an Italian Jewess from a family of musicians. portrait of Emilia Lanier by Nicholas Hilliard
And, sorry to do this, but this thread is not-so-subtly intended to promote my novel, which is partly about Emilia. Sorry but it's still free content! This is just the part where they attach ads to the free content. Free content resumes after this tweet. groveatlantic.com/book/the-heave…
Emilia's family were musicians brought from Venice to work for Henry VIII. Their ancestors were probably silk makers, a traditionally Jewish profession; their coat of arms had three silkworm moths over a mulberry tree. Their motto was "Grace me guide."
The Bassanos are assumed to be from the town Bassano del Grappa, whose Jews were expelled in 1516 & mostly ended up in the Venetian ghetto, a walled island where the city's Jews had to live. At night & on Christian holidays, they were locked in, partly for their own safety.
Five Bassano brothers were brought to England, along with a dozen other musicians. They were all given houses in the Charterhouse, formerly a monastery dissolved by Henry. At this point, its chapel was full of some knight's old hunting equipment.
Eventually the always-broke King sold the Charterhouse out from under them. After a long court battle (nothing could happen in 16th-century England without a nasty law suit) the musicians were turfed out & moved to various parts of London.
Emilia's father Baptista was in the King's (later the Queen's) recorder consort. Things we know about him: He never married Emilia's English mother. In 1563, some men plotted to kill him and "were whipped, pilloried & lost their ears for the offense."
Court musicians got a regular salary which was sadly never adjusted for inflation, and lost its value dramatically over the decades. But they also got their meals, free clothes (livery), and could moonlight by playing elsewhere; e.g. at rich men's parties and at theatres.
Musicians were also granted various monopolies by the crown. For instance, Emilia later inherited a part-share in a lucrative monopoly on the weighing of all the straw and hay that came into London. Her father and his brothers also had a monopoly on the export of calfskins.
Court musicians were also exempt from jury duty, from taxes, and from being chosen for the various government duties citizens could be drafted into: scavenger, watchman, constable. Finally, they couldn't be arrested for most crimes.
In one case, a couple of Bassano brothers, being threatened with arrest by a sheriff, said to him, "Send us to ward? Thou wert as good kiss our arse. You were as good eat the sole of my boot," and in fact, as courtiers, they were set free & it was the sheriff who got in trouble.
Like many Elizabethans, as a child Emilia Bassano was sent away to live with a family of higher rank—the Countess of Kent's (pictured). This practice was thought to toughen children up and teach them how to serve, a crucial skill in a semi-feudal society. portrait of the Countess of Kent
When she was still a teenager in this household, Emilia became the mistress of Henry Carey, the 60-year-old Lord Chamberlain of England. Carey was also notably the Queen's cousin—or possibly the Queen's half-brother from an affair Henry VIII had with Ann Boleyn's sister. portrait of Henry Carey looking very bald and old and like an inappropriate boyfriend for a teenager
Most of what we know about Emilia's later life comes from her doctor/astrologer Simon Forman, who kept a notebook on his patients, particularly about which of them he had successfully seduced. We know for instance that she was nicknamed "The Moor" for her dark complexion.
Here is one of Simon Forman's astrological charts and a page from his diary where he describes going to see one of Shakespeare's plays (Richard II). The writing is English, but it's secretary hand, so basically like one of those spiders making a web on LSD.
If you want to try deciphering it, the diary entry begins: "Remember therein how Jack Straw by his overmuch boldness …" (Simon Forman wrote his diaries as if they were letters to his future self.)
Forman says of Emilia: "The old Lord Chamberlain kept her long… she has 40 pounds a year and was wealthy to him that married her in money and jewels. She has been favoured much of her Majesty and of many noblemen, and has had great gifts and been made much of."
At eighteen, Emilia got pregnant (or had the first pregnancy that she didn't lose), and was married off to a cousin, Alfonso Lanier. Lanier was, like her father, a musician in the King's recorder consort. Emilia seems to have been very underwhelmed with this marriage.
Lanier spent most of his life—and, Emilia complained, her money—going on hare-brained military adventures with the Earl of Essex, always hoping to be noticed and knighted. Essex knighted just about everyone *but* Lanier, who seems to have been a bit of a sad sack.
In his notebook, Forman refers to himself in the third person, and the code word he used for fucking was "halek." He scrupulously recorded every halek. Many of his haleking partners were his female patients; he was particularly known for his successful treatment of infertility.
Forman notes of Emilia: "She is now very needy, in debt and it seems for lucre's sake will be a good fellow, for necessity doth compel." That is, he thinks she'll fuck him for the promise of money.
Accordingly, Forman made a house call to Emilia one day and "felt all parts of her body willingly and kissed her often … but only she would not halek". She "dealt evil with him after" & practiced "villainy" on him.
In fact, Forman seems to think Emilia practiced witchcraft on him. All historians who write about Forman seem to be unanimous in hoping she did.
As far as her being Shakespeare's mistress goes, this idea is based on a character in his sonnets known as the Dark Lady. Emilia is a good candidate to be this person for various reasons.
She has the right coloring (often mentioned in the sonnets); she's of the right social class to be sleeping with an actor; she almost certainly knew Shakespeare both from her family and from court; there are characters named Emilia and Bassanio in the plays he set in Venice.
If she's the Dark Lady, Shakespeare had as much trouble with her as Forman. He describes her as promiscuous, deceitful, devilish, etc. Of course, in the sonnets she seems to also be sleeping with Shakespeare's boyfriend. (Long story.) Anyway, everyone agrees Emilia was a handful.
But what's more important than her possible role as the subject of someone else's poems is her writing the first English book of poetry by a woman, Salve Deus Rex Judeorem.
The book is best known for its feminist themes, defending women and blaming men for sin, very unusual for the time. It's also unusual in being dedicated to no fewer than nine noblewomen, who all got long poems of flattery in the dedications.
Of 143 pages in the book, 35 are dedications. Even after that, each poem begins with *another* dedication to a highly-placed woman. Emilia also wrote the first known country house poem; a whole genre dedicated to thanking someone for letting you stay in their awesome house.
In her later middle age, we find her opening a school for girls, but immediately getting into such ferocious disputes over the rent for the school's premises that she was arrested twice. She died at the ripe old age of 76.
Anyway, the wonderful thing about Emilia is that, although she was a remarkable character, she was also so typically Elizabethan: a ruthless social climber, unabashedly sexual, credulous about astrology, fiercely litigious, very religious & very materialist at the same time.
And, OK, that's one of the reasons I wrote a book where she's one of the main characters. So here's my final advertising message to buy my book. (Sorry, but I have to do this.) It's not out till Feb 12th, but pre-ordering is fun! Here's an early review: publishersweekly.com/978-0-8021-290…
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