The telenovela Isabel
depicts what life was like in the Middle Ages, where social classes were strictly divided and the ruling monarchs were often the decision makers that directed daily life. Viewers might wonder if it is really true: What was daily life like for the working class? Was the use of poison to get rid of enemies very common? What superstitions tormented the rich and poor in the 15th century? How were brides dressed on their way to the altar? Here are a few aspects of life during the 15th Century, and in particular, during the time of Queen Isabel and her rise to the throne.
The peasants were generally at the expense of the whims of the nobility.
In many of Isabel’s
episodes we have seen that being a peasant, a part of the common folk, was not easy. The nobles treated them as pawns in a game of chess and tried to control their lives and live off of much of their work. Was reality truly so hard for them? Teresa Cunillera, the historical consultant for the series, has said that "Peasants suffered all sorts of calamities. They were at the mercy of nature; if they had a bad harvest, they were directly affected." She adds: "It was not an easy life, of course."
Oscar Villarroel, from the Department of Medieval History at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, analyzes the population that was a vast majority in numbers but had the least amount of wealth: "The peasants lived mainly from agriculture (this could mean up to 90% of the total population), and to a lesser extent, through commerce, crafts or other trades. In other words, they had a life that was very attached to the seasons, linked to the changes of the weather, and dependent on the decisions of the monarchs to go to war. "
The Use of Poison in the Middle Ages
As some stories from the time have suggested, poison seemed to be a common and relatively easy way to get rid of rivals and future kings. Was the use of poison really that widespread? "Easy answer: No." Villarroel adds, "It is part of the dark legends that surround some of the characters or certain periods of the time. It is true though that the fear of poison was in fact prevalent among the royals. In the Castilian court in the 14th century, the practice of “salva” or “saving” became very common, where a few people had to taste the King’s beverages before he would in order to ensure his safety. There also was a market of a wide array of poisons, but they weren’t commonly used. "
Along the same lines, Angeles Irisarri, author of the popular Spanish novels “The Trilogy of Isabel, the Queen” says, "Well, well, we're not in the Italy of Lucrezia Borgia [symbol of a ruthless, Machiavellian leader of the late 1400’s]. However, there exists documentation about alchemists, necromancers, witches, fortune tellers, enchantresses and so on."
Teresa Cunillera leaves the door open: "There are many deaths that occurred that we will never be able to truly know what happened (...) What is very suspicious is that these deaths were so timely—whenever someone was interested in someone else dying, they died."
Superstitions that have survived to this day
In a particular scene from Isabel
, soldiers fall down to their knees and pray after seeing a group of storks fly by. Their commander, Pedro Giron, laughs at them and says he doesn’t believe in bad omens.
We asked Villarroel about the superstitions of the time. He says that they also fall within the dark legends about the Middle Ages: "It has been said that most of them originate in the Middle Ages, which is a lie and shows a certain ignorance about the era, because the origin of many of these superstitions dates back to ancient beliefs, acts and rituals from paganism, whether Roman or native."
He continues, "Normally they were linked to religion, the belief in miracles, and divine intervention... The 14th century crisis had deeply impacted the minds of the people, and that had significant importance: the presence of death, the importance of fortune ... There were many superstitions about fortune, the belief in destiny, dream interpretation, etc., but these superstitions, that the Church tried to destroy, were more prominent within higher cultural circles."
Teresa Cunillera told us that some of those beliefs have survived to this day, such as the black cat representing bad luck or that the absence of one's shadow indicated imminent death.
Wedding dresses in the Middle Ages
Isabel was a gorgeous bride; we wanted to know how women in the 15th century dressed for the all important wedding day.
"They had to put on the best dress they owned, that's for sure. White certainly was not the mandatory color; it likely wasn’t worn," Teresa Cunillera explains.
Oscar Villarroel adds, "Without a doubt, there was no specific standardized dress, as is the case today, which is a relatively recent custom." Angeles Irisarri explains, "The bride and groom dressed in new clothes—the higher the social class, the better the outfit. Nobles would often wear the colors of their lineage or their coat of arms."
The idea of the bride in all white has been debunked, instead here are brides in luxurious outfits with different colors. Which was the most sought after color? Cunillera reveals that “the color red or scarlet was the most popular because it was so hard to get.”
As historically accurate as the telenovela Isabel
actually is, it is important to realize that just like in other historical dramas, it is necessary to modernize the visuals and slightly adapt them to our times in order for viewers to feel connected to the story. What matters the most is the great historical storyline behind Isabel
that continues to surprise and attract more and more new viewers every day.
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