Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A Brief History of Foods: Blood Sausage

Introduction  As the name implies, blood sausages[1] are sausages filled with blood that is cooked or dried and mixed with a filler until it is thick enough to solidify when cooled.  Variants of the basic recipe are found worldwide.  Indeed, in many languages there is a general term such as blood sausage (American English) or blood pudding (British English) used for all sausages that are made from blood, whether or not they include non-animal material such as bread, cereal, and nuts. Sausages that include such ingredients are often called by more specific names such as black pudding in Britain.

Blood puddings[2], or black puddings as they will be referred to from hereon, are supposed to be one of the oldest forms of sausage.  Animals are generally bled at slaughter, and as blood does not keep unless prepared in some way, making a pudding with it is one of the easiest ways of ensuring it does not go to waste[3].  While the majority of modern black pudding recipes involve pork blood, this has not always been the case.  The blood of pigs, cows, horses, donkeys, sheep, ducks and goats have all been used.  One 15th century English recipe[4] used that of a porpoise in a pudding to be eaten exclusively by the nobility[5].  While in Scotland, until at least the 19th century, cow or sheep blood was the usual basis for black puddings; Jamieson's Scottish dictionary defined "black pudding" as "a pudding made of the blood of a cow or sheep"[6].

Ancient History  The earliest appearance in literature of a type of black pudding was around 800 BC when it was mentioned in Book 18 of Homer's classic saga “The Odyssey”[7]:
  • “Here at the fire are goats' paunches lying, which we set there for supper, when we had filled them with fat and blood.”
The first recognisable recipe, using lengths of intestine, rather than a stomach, as the container can be found in Book 2 of ApiciusDe Re Coquinaria (“On Cookery”).  The Apician recipe botellum sic facies instructs the cook to:
  • “Take the yolks of six hard-boiled eggs, chopped pine nuts, onion, and sliced leeks, and mix with blood [and forcemeats].  Add ground pepper and fill the intestine with the stuffing.  Cook in stock and wine.”[8]
Mediæval Meal  In Britain the dish has been known as black pudding for centuries; blak podyngs having been recorded c. 1450.  A number of dialect names have also been used for the dish, such as black pot in Somerset and bloody pot, particularly in reference to versions cooked in an earthenware pot rather than in a sausage casing.  The latter seems very reminiscent of the descriptions of the ancient Spartan melas zomos, or black broth.
Throughout the Mediæval period it was commonplace for even relatively poor families to own, raise and slaughter a pig each autumn.  Not wishing to let any of the animal go to waste, the pig’s blood might be blended with minced onions and diced fat, spiced with ginger, cloves and a little pepper[9], and stuffed into lengths of intestine to make black puddings.  As a product of the slaughtering process, eating black puddings was historically associated with Martinmas[10], when the annual slaughter of livestock took place.

Black Pudding’s Religious Controversy  In the late 17th century, at a time of numerous disagreements on matters of religion, the consumption of black pudding became highly controversial.  In 1652, Thomas Barlow, a future bishop of Lincoln, wrote the “Trial of a Black-Pudding” in which he asserted that God had specifically proscribed blood eating among the Hebrews.  Barlow claimed that no meat was unclean in itself, but black pudding was a violation of both Jewish law and the Christian exemptions as dispensed by the Apostles.  Many Christian scholars (particularly Methodists) thus argued that Christians were not to eat blood products and black pudding was definitely off the menu.

At some point Sir Isaac Newton was dragged into the middle of these arguments.  In “Vegetable Love”, an article for The New Yorker in January 2007[11], Steve Shaplin wrote “it was put about that Sir Isaac Newton abstained from this dish because of the Old Testament prohibition against eating blood.”  It turns out, however, that he “thought the eating of blood inclined men to be cruel [to animals]” and had nothing to do with a religious conviction.  Even so, those against the eating of blood products claimed Newton’s abstinence from black pudding as non-religious support of their beliefs.  By the time of Newton’s death (in 1727), both sides of the black-pudding debate had been feuding for almost 100 years.  To this day black pudding still divides people between those who enjoy eating it and those disgusted by the prospect.

By the 19th century black pudding manufacture was linked with towns known for their large markets for pork, such as Stretford[12][13], then in Lancashire, or Cork in Ireland.  By this time, black puddings were generally omitted from recipe books aimed at urban housewives, as they no longer usually had access to home-killed pork.  Recipes would continue to appear in Scottish books until the 20th century, however[14].

A Nutritious Meal  Black pudding is a good daily source of protein and iron, is low in carbohydrate, but many have very high levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and salt[15].

The most traditional recipes from the UK involve stirring the fresh blood, adding fat and some form of rusk, typically oats or barley, and seasoning, before filling the mixture into a casing[16] and boiling it.  Despite this, black pudding recipes still show more regional variation across the country than other sausages, with many butchers having their own individual versions.  Breadcrumbs or flour are sometimes used to supplement the oats or barley, and the proportion and texture of the fat or suet used can also vary widely.  Pennyroyal, marjoram, thyme, and mint are all traditional flavourings, although other herbs and spices, such as cumin, rue and parsley, are sometimes used.

As it has travelled around the world, the ingredients in the humble black pudding have changed according to whichever were cheapest and most readily available.  In Europe and the Americas, typical fillers include meat, fat, suet, bread, cornmeal, onion, chestnuts, barley, oatmeal and buckwheat.  While on the Iberian Peninsula and in Asia, rice is often used instead of other cereals.  As global trade evolved more spices could be added and the dish changed again.

And Finally  Black pudding has changed with the times.  A highly adaptable food it is now made in many different ways by many different companies.  Its evolution went from a traveling culinary delight to a staple food providing sustenance to those who needed it most.

1. Blood sausage in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.
2. Blood pudding in the Oxford Dictionaries Online.
3. Jaine, T. and Davidson, A. (2006), The Oxford Companion to Food, OUP, p.104.
4. “Take the Blood of him, & the grease of him self, & Oatmeal, & Salt, & Pepper, & Ginger, & mix these together well, & then put this in the Gut of the porpoise, & then let it boil easily, & not hard, a good while; & then take him up, & broil him a little, & then serve forth.”
5. Jaine, T. and Davidson, A. (2006), ibid.
6. Jamieson, J. (1825), Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, v1, p.95.
7. https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerOdyssey18.html, Line 44, translated by A.T. Murray.
8. Edwards, J. (1988), The Roman Cookery of Apicius, Rider, London, p.26.
9. For most of the mediæval period spices were an expensive luxury.  Those who could afford to lavish money on imported spices used them as conspicuous sign of wealth.  With the re-emergence of a global spice trade, such luxuries became more commonplace.
10. Martinmas, or St Martin’s Day, is the Funeral day of Saint Martin of Tours (Martin le Miséricordieux) and is celebrated on November 11th each year. This is the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed, and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle produced "Martinmas beef".
12. Waugh, E. (1869), Lancashire Sketches, p.78.
13. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929), Volume 20, p.13.
14. Leach, H. (2008), "Translating the 18th century pudding" in Clark et al (eds), Islands of Inquiry: Colonisation, Seafaring and the Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes, ANU, p.390.
15. "Blood sausage – Nutrition Facts", SELFNutritionData, retrieved March 18th, 2020.
16. Natural casings of beef intestine were formerly used, though modern commercially made puddings use synthetic cellulose skins.


The spice trade has a long and lucrative ancestry.  As early as 2,000 BC cinnamon and cassia (or Chinese cinnamon) were being imported into Egypt.  From the 3rd millennium BC onwards, the Egyptians were trading with the Land of Punt[1] for gold, ivory, ebony, incense, aromatic resins, animal skins, live animals, eye-makeup cosmetics, fragrant woods, and cinnamon.  Moreover, just across the Red Sea, southern Arabia (Arabia Felix of antiquity) had been a trading centre for frankincense, myrrh, and other fragrant resins and gums.  The Arab traders, however, artfully withheld the true sources of the spices they sold by telling fantastical and frightening stories intended to satisfy the curious, protect their market, and discourage competitors.

Whatever part the overland trade routes across Asia played, it was mainly by sea that the spice trade grew.  Arab traders were sailing directly to spice-producing lands long before the Christian era.  Further afield, in East Asia, the Chinese crossed the waters of the Malay Archipelago to trade in the Spice Islands (the Moluccas or the East Indies).  Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was another important trading point.
In 80 BC, when Ptolemy XI bequeathed Alexandria to the Romans, the revenues from taxes levied on the spice trade in this major Mediterranean port were enormous.  The Romans themselves soon initiated voyages from Egypt to India, and under their rule Alexandria became the greatest commercial centre of the world.  It was also the leading emporium for the aromatic spices of India, all of which found their way to the markets of Greece and the Roman Empire.  Roman trade with India was extensive for more than three hundred years.  Trade was such that it allowed exotic spices, for example black pepper, to be far more commonplace than in later centuries.

As Roman influence waned, the trade in spices also began to decline.  A short-lived resurgence in the 5th century AD did not prevent trade declining once more in the 6th century.  Although much weakened, the Arabs kept their hold on the spice trade in the post-Roman period and through the Middle Ages.

By the tenth century both Venice and Genoa had begun to prosper through trade with the Levant.  The bitter rivalry that developed between the two culminated in the naval battle of Chioggia (June 24th, 1380).  With Genoa defeated, Venice secured a monopoly of trade in the Middle east for the next century making exorbitant profits by trading spices with buyer-distributors from northern and western Europe.

Although the origin of spices were known throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, no ruler proved capable of breaking the Venetian hold on the trade routes.  Toward the end of the 15th century explorers ventured out to discover new ways of obtaining valuable spices.  The voyages of discovery in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, under the flag of Spain, and in 1497 by John Cabot on behalf of England both failed to find the spice-producing regions.  Columbus did, however, make landfall in the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Hispaniola, and did return with many new fruits and vegetables, including chilli peppers.

A Portuguese expedition was the first to bring spices back from India to Europe by way of the Cape of Good Hope in 1501.  Portugal went on to dominate the naval trading routes through much of the 16th century.

In 1595, and again in 1598, two Dutch fleets set sail for the Spice Islands.  Both returned home with rich cargoes of cloves, mace, nutmeg, and black pepper.  Their success laid the foundation for the prosperous Dutch East India Company, an amalgamation of several Dutch companies, in 1602.  Two years earlier in England, Queen Elizabeth I issued a Royal Charter to the East India Company on December 31st, 1600 to exploit the profitable trade to be had with the Indies.  The Portuguese, British
and Dutch were joined in 1664 by the French East India Company, but not all of these ventures chartered by European nations would prove successful. In subsequent struggles to control the trade,  Portugal eventually would be eclipsed after more than a century as the dominant power.  By the 19th century, British interests were firmly rooted in India and Ceylon, while the Dutch were in control of the greater part of the East Indies. Global trade as we know it was firmly established.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Travels with my Freed Bear: Kourion

When schools in the UK take their half-term break in February, we have been lucky, for the last few years, to visit Cyprus.  Although a working trip on behalf of Sir Teachalot delivering history workshops for schools on the island, there is usually a bit of time to explore.  On one such excursion we headed to the Kourion Archaeological Site.  What follows is a brief guide to some of the site's best preserved bits.

Kourion (Greek: Κούριον or Latin: Curium) was an important ancient city-state on the southwestern coast of Cyprus.  The acropolis of Kourion, located 1.3 km southwest of Episkopi and 13 km west of Limassol, is positioned atop a limestone promontory nearly one hundred metres high along the coast of Episkopi Bay.  The city-state that arose overlooked and controlled the fertile valley of the river Kouris.  Archaeological evidence suggests that its inhabitants believed they were descendents of Argean immigrants and that Kourion was associated with the legend of Argos in the Greek Peloponnese.  The once-flourishing kingdom was eventually destroyed in a severe earthquake in AD 365.

For those wishing to visit, the Kourion Archaeological Site lies within the British Overseas Territory of Akrotiri and Dhekelia and is managed by the Cyprus Department of Antiquity.  Kourion is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Paphos.  At the time of writing, entrance costs from €4.50 per person.

The Theatre  The site’s centrepiece is the magnificent Greco-Roman theatre built in the 2nd century BC and extended in the 2nd century AD.  Excavated by the University Museum Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania between 1935 and 1950, the theatre has been extensively restored.  It is still used for open-air musical and theatrical performances - mainly during the summer months - thus connecting modern audiences with their ancient forebears.

The theatre was initially constructed on a smaller scale in the late-second century BC on the northern slope of the defile ascending from the Amathus Gate.  The slope of the hill was thus used to partially support the weight of the seating in the cavea (Latin for "enclosure").  This architectural arrangement is typical of Hellenistic theatres throughout the Eastern Mediterranean with a circular orchestra (Greek: orkhestra)[1] and a cavea exceeding 180 degrees.

The theatre was repaired in the late-first century BC, likely following the earthquake of 15 BC.  The theatre's skene, or "scene building"[2], (Latin: scenae frons) was seemingly reconstructed in AD 64/65 by Quintus Iulius Cordus, the proconsul, and it was likely at this time the ends of the cavea were removed, reducing it to a Roman plan of 180 degrees.  The orchestra was likewise shortened to a semi-circular form.  The theatre received an extensive renovation and enlargement during Emperor Trajan's reign between ca. AD 98 - 111, bringing the theatre to its present size and seating arrangement.  The scene building was rebuilt to the height of the cavea.  Now only the foundations are preserved, but this structure would have originally obscured the view of the Mediterranean to the south.  The enlarged cavea could have accommodated an audience of as many as 3,500 people.

Between AD 214 and 217, the theatre was modified to accommodate gladiatorial games and venationes, the hunting and killing of wild animals (Latin: venatio, "hunting", plural venationes). It was restored to its original form as a theatre post-AD 250.  The theatre fell out of use in the later-fourth century AD, likely the result of successive seismic events with the earthquake of AD 365/70 perhaps resulting in its eventual abandonment.

House of Eustolios  Just to the east of the theatre are the remains of a prominent building, the "House of Eustolios".  Originally a private villa it was converted into a public recreation centre during the Early Christian period.
Whilst the villa was modest in size, it was well equipped and richly adorned.  Its remains consist of four panels of beautiful, 5th century mosaic floors in the central room (pictured left), and a bathing complex that is located on a higher level, accessed by steps, north of the building.  A roof structure allows visitors to enjoy the site all year round, and explore its remains.

The baths themselves originally opened off the central room to the north and east, where there were cold baths (frigidarium). Before each is a shallow foot-bath; while on the west, the remains of the hypocausts - which heated the warm room (tepidarium), and the hot room (caldarium) - can be seen. In the latter, the built-in basins for hot baths have survived, as have the furnaces, where hot air was carried through the hypocausts, travelling up through specially-cut flues, through the walls, and beneath the terracotta tiles of the floor.

House of the Gladiators Along with the House of Eustolios, further impressive mosaic floors can be seen in the "House of Achilles" and the "House of the Gladiators", both villas being so-named after the scenes depicted on the mosaics (pictured below left).
The "House of the Gladiators" is located south and east of the "House of Achilles" and dates to the late-3rd century AD.  It has been interpreted as an elite-private residence, or perhaps more probably as a public palaestra[3].  The latter interpretation is suggested by the absence of many rooms appropriate for living spaces and that the structure was entered from the east through the attached bath complex.

The main wing of the structure is arranged around a central peristyle courtyard.  The northern and eastern portico of the atrium contains two panels depicting gladiators in combat, the only such mosaics in Cyprus.  The structure was extensively damaged in the earthquakes of the late-4th century, but the east rooms seem to have been used until the mid-7th century.

The Forum, the Nymphaeum and the Forum Baths  The forum of Kourion, as it appears today, was constructed in the late second or early third centuries.  As the centre of public life, the forum consisted of a central pavement with colonnaded porticoes set along its eastern, northern and western sides.  The eastern portico measured 65 m in length and 4.5 m wide, with a colonnade facing the courtyard, and a wall forming frontage of shops to the west.  The northern portico provided access to a monumental nymphaeum and a bath complex, or thermae, constructed around the nymphaeum to the North.  The western portico was renovated in the early fifth century to provide an entrance to the episcopal precinct, located immediately to the West.

The nymphaeum, was developed in four successive phases from the early first century AD to the mid seventh century, and was among the largest nymphaea in the Roman Mediterranean in the second and third centuries. In its earliest phase the nymphaeum consisted of a rectangular room with a tri-apsidal fountain set in its northern wall flowing into a rectangular basin along the length of the same wall. After an earthquake in CE 77, the nymphaeum was rebuilt between 98 and 117. The nymphaeum was internally dived by a courtyard with a room to the south containing an apsidal fountain and rectangular basins. In this phase, the nymphaeum measured 45 m long and 15 m wide.  After its destruction in the earthquakes of the late fourth century, the nymphaeum was rebuilt as a three-aisled basilica with apses along the southern wall. This structure was used as a temporary church between 370 and 410 during the construction of the ecclesiastical precinct to the west. It was abandoned in the mid seventh century.

The baths, which surround the nymphaeum at the northwestern end of the forum, were constructed in the early to mid fourth century AD following repairs to the nymphaeum.  The baths were divided into east and west wings by the nymphaeum.  The eastern baths were arranged around a central corridor which opened onto a sudatorium (sauna), a caldarium (hot room), and a tepidarium (warm room) to the North.  The western baths possessed a series of axially aligned baths along the northwest wall of the nymphaeum.

Pictured left are the numerous pilae stacks of square tiles that once supported the suspended floor of the hypocaust, the underfloor heating system common in Roman-era bathhouses.

The Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates  About 1½ km West of Kourion's acropolis is the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates.  Well worth a visit, the earliest archaeological evidence for this Pan-Cyprian sanctuary are from votive deposits dated to the late eighth century BC.  These were discovered in the southern court and at the archaic altar, the earliest structure dating to the late eighth or early seventh century AD.  These early offerings were dedicated to “the god” rather than to Apollo who was not associated with the sanctuary until the mid-third century BC.

A structure of the late-fourth century BC, located East of the later sacred way, and South of the altar served as the residence of the priests of Apollo and the temple treasury.  This building was successively renovated in the first, third and fourth centuries AD.  The present form of the sanctuary dates to the first century AD and to its restoration in the early second century, during the reign of Emperor Trajan, after the earthquake of AD 76/77.

At the end of the first century BC or early first century AD the sacred street was laid out, and the palaestra, temple, structure north of the Paphian gate and the circular monument constructed.  The Augustan temple is 13.5 m long and 8.35 m wide with a tetrastyle (four pillared) portico beyond which was the  pronaos, the inner area situated between the colonnade or walls and the entrance to the cella, or shrine.

Under Trajan and the Proconsul Quintus Laberius Justus Cocceius Lepidus the sanctuary underwent restoration and expansion.  The southern portico, southern buildings, which likely functioned as dormitories for devotees and the bathhouse were built under this restoration.  The temple was subsequently abandoned after a period of decline in the late fourth century AD, after it was sustained significant damage in yet another earthquake.


1.  The Greek orkhestra means "a space where a chorus of dancers performs," from orkheisthai, "to dance."
2.  The “scene-building”, or skene, in ancient Greek theatres was originally a hut behind the playing area used for the changing of masks and costumes.  Eventually it became the background in front of which the drama was enacted.  The modern English words "scene" and "scenary" derive from skene.
3.  A palaestra (Greek: παλαίστρα) was the site of ancient Greek wrestling schools.  Events that did not require a lot of space, such as boxing and wrestling, were practised there.  The palaestra functioned both independently and as a part of public gymnasia; a palaestra could exist without a gymnasium, but no gymnasium could exist without a palaestra.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Brief History of Foods: The Chilli Pepper

The chilli pepper (from Nahuatl chīlli /ˈt͡ʃiːli/) is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae.

Chilli peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC.  The most recent research shows that chilli peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago in Mexico, and were one of the first self-pollinating crops cultivated in Mexico, Central and parts of South America.

Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them during his second voyage to the West Indies in 1493.  He called them "peppers" because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs.  On their introduction into Europe, chillies were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries.  Later the monks experimented with the chilli culinary potential and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.

The spread of chilli peppers to Asia was most likely a natural consequence of its introduction to Portuguese traders (Lisbon was a common port of call for Spanish ships sailing to and from the Americas) who, aware of its trade value, would have likely promoted its commerce in the Asian spice trade routes then dominated by Portuguese and Arab traders.  Today chilli peppers are an integral part of South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Dispelling Some Myths: The Earth is Flat

Once again a recently broadcast popular UK television programme promoted yet another “factoid”. A throw away comment, on camera, repeated the fiction that people in the 17th century believed the Earth was flat. Now I thoroughly enjoy the TV show, but in keeping with the theme of this series, this myth has been debunked so long ago I am agog that it was given credence. The media, in all its guises, has such a powerful hold on the imaginations of its subscribers that to allow these insidious “factoids” to creep into the popular subconscious would be unforgiveable.

Conceiving the Earth as a flat plane or disk has ancient roots, however. Many archaic cultures subscribed to a flat Earth model including the early Greeks (until the classical period[1]), the Bronze Age and Iron Age civilizations of the Near East until the Hellenistic period[2], India until the Gupta period[3], and China until the 17th century.

The idea of a spherical Earth first appeared in ancient Greek philosophy of the 6th century BC. Pythagoras of Samos and his contemporary Parmenides of Elea were both credited with having been the first to teach that the Earth was spherical[4]. Although the flat Earth model endured, in the early fourth century BC Plato was writing about a spherical Earth, and by about 330 BC his former student Aristotle provided empirical evidence for the spherical shape of the Earth.

Still not convinced the ancient Greeks knew the Earth was spherical, then consider the case of Eratosthenes of Cyrene. Chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria, Eratosthenes is best known for being the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth without leaving home. By comparing angles of the mid-day Sun at two places, a known North-South distance apart. He knew that at local noon on the summer solstice in Syrene (modern Aswan, Egypt), the Sun was directly overhead. He then measured the Sun's angle of elevation at noon in Alexandria by using a vertical rod, known as a gnomon, and measuring the length of its shadow on the ground. Using the length of the rod, and the length of the shadow, as the legs of a triangle, he calculated the angle of the Sun's rays. This turned out to be about 7°, or 1/50th the circumference of a circle. Taking the Earth as spherical, and knowing both the distance (5,000 stadia) and direction of Syene, he concluded that the Earth's circumference was fifty times that distance. His calculation was remarkably accurate at 40,074 km (24,901 mi), which is 66 km (41 mi) different from the currently accepted polar circumference of the Earth.

Knowledge of the spherical Earth gradually began to spread beyond the Hellenistic world being supported by most scholars from AD 600s onwards. By the Early Middle Ages (between the 5th and 10th centuries) the belief in a flat Earth was almost non-existent. Certainly after AD 1400 most educated Europeans rejected the notion.

Despite the scientific facts, pseudoscientific flat Earth conspiracy theories are still championed by modern flat Earth societies. Rising to prominence from the middle of the 20th century, some adherents of these groups are serious, while some are not. The serious ones are typically motivated by religion, pseudoscience or conspiracy theories. Today, with the rise to prominence of social media, flat Earth theories have been increasingly advocated by individuals not connected with these larger groups. The myth of the flat Earth is a modern misconception, one that needs to be dispelled.

1. The Classical period in Greece corresponds to most of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The most commonly accepted range of dates begin with the fall of the last Athenian tyrant (Hippias, son of Peisistratos) in 510 BC to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.
2. The Hellenistic period covers the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire as signified by the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt the following year.
3. Corresponding to the ancient Indian Gupta Empire that existed from the mid-to-late 3rd century AD to AD 543.
4. Burkert, W. (1972), Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, p.306-308.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Spiral Staircases

In an effort to continually improve our knowledge we came across “History…The Interesting Bits!”, a blog by Sharon Bennett Connolly. In October 2019, the blog posted a piece by guest writer James Wright, a buildings archaeologist with Triskele Heritage. In it, James busted several myths surrounding the construction and use of Mediæval buildings. For those interested, the full post can be found here: https://historytheinterestingbits.com/2019/10/09/guest-post-busting-mediaeval-building-myths-part-one/ but what drew our eye was the section on spiral staircases.

Guilty of believing that spiral staircases always twist clockwise, it is time to dispel that particular myth. So, here is James’ account of one of the ten myths associated with mediaeval buildings, and the (often more interesting) realities hiding behind them.

“During my [James’] visits to mediaeval buildings, the information relayed on websites, leaflets and guidebooks or by property owners, custodians and stewards is not always wholly precise. I want to use this blog to gently bust a few of the more common myths. There is rarely any malicious intent in such stories - they are usually the result of the misidentification of a structure by an early antiquarian, amateur or even professional historian. If something has been repeated enough times or put into print it becomes “real”. Once it becomes “received wisdom” the myth is widely taken as factual and repeated often.

Go and visit any castle in the land and you will inevitably find a guidebook, audio-tour, interpretation panel or tour guide stating that all spiral staircases twist clockwise to provide a swordsman’s advantage for the right-handed defenders, who were able to easily wield their weapons, whilst attackers would be at a disadvantage. I’ve spotted this being presented to visitors recently at both Arundel, Sussex and Colchester, Essex.

A brilliant survey of castle staircases, by Neil Guy of the Castle Studies Group, has demonstrated that, contrary to the myth, anti-clockwise spiral staircases were incredibly common. We can find them in the eleventh century at the Tower of London; twelfth century at Newark, Nottinghamshire (pictured left); thirteenth century at Conwy, Gwynedd; fourteenth century at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight and fifteenth century at Kirby Muxloe, Leicestershire. Many of these castles were built during periods of military activity such as the Norman Conquest or Edwardian invasion of Wales – yet they still feature anti-clockwise stairs.

Some castle gatehouses (for example, Tonbridge, Kent) feature two staircase turrets, one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. They seem to relate to a similar pattern of access in monastery and cathedral towers (such as St Alphage Tower, London) which may be “up” and “down” routes to avoid collisions and jams. Many castles, such as Richmond, North Yorkshire, even feature straight stair passages.

Finally, sieges rarely ended with fighting in the interiors of castles, let alone on the staircases - if the enemy was on your stair, the battle was probably already lost!”

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On was a motivational poster produced by the British Ministry of Information in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The poster was intended to raise the morale of the British public, threatened with widely predicted mass air attacks on major cities. Although almost 2,500,000 copies of Keep Calm and Carry On were printed between August 23rd and September 3rd, 1939 but the poster was not sanctioned for immediate public display. It was instead decided that copies should remain in "cold storage" for use after serious air raids. So, although the Blitz clearly did take place, the poster was only rarely publicly displayed and even then, unauthorised.

Following criticism of its cost and impact, the Ministry of Information publicity campaign was cancelled in October 1939. Many people claimed not to have seen the posters; while those who did see them regarded them as patronising and divisive.

Over the last decade, the popularity of Keep Calm and Carry On grew widely in various media resulting in innumerable parodies, imitations and co-optations, making it a notable meme. Messages range from the cute to the overtly political.

How ironic then that, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the sentiments of the poster have been so widely disregarded. Panic buying, stockpiling and, undoubtedly, profiteering seem to be the public reaction. Hardly the much mythologised “Blitz spirit”, but then again today’s leaders seemingly have not acted with any of the planning and preparation conducted by the British Government of the late 1930s. Eighty-one years ago, the lessons from the Great War of 1914-18 had been learnt. As war was once again declared, a host of wartime restrictions were enacted and rationing for all mandated.

Given the message seems to be that many people and, most significantly, the UK economy will be adversely affected, one might have expected a strong government to have acted quickly and decisively. Yet, in an eerie parallel, it seems the lesson from history has not been learnt. Like today, the British government of 1917, in line with its wartime "business as usual" policy, was reluctant to try to control the food markets. It resisted efforts to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting on the control of essential imports such as sugar, meat and grains. When changes were introduced, however, they had limited effect. A year earlier, it had become illegal to consume more than two courses while lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding pigeons or stray animals.

In February 1917, in yet another foretaste of World War Two, Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare programme began to sink ships bringing food to Britain. Aimed at starving the country into surrender, Britain responded by introducing voluntary rationing. Bread was subsidised from September 1917, with compulsory rationing introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918, as Britain's stores of wheat dropped to just six weeks’ supply.

Rationing was an idea that was not a popular with the British public, however. But as the war went on food became scarcer and scarcer, and in 1918 the Government finally introduced rationing. Ration books were introduced on July 15th, 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar.

At the start of the Second World War in 1939, the civilian population of the country was about 50 million. To feed the people, the United Kingdom imported 20,000,000 tons of food per year, including: about 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits, about 70% of cereals and fats, 50% of its meat, and Britain also relied on imported feed to support its domestic meat production.

As before, it was one of the principal strategies of Nazi Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic to attack shipping bound for Britain, restricting British industry and potentially starving the nation into submission. So, to deal with sometimes extreme shortages, the Ministry of Food instituted a system of rationing. To buy most rationed items, each person had to register at chosen shops and was provided with a ration book containing coupons. The shopkeeper was provided with enough food for registered customers. Purchasers had to take ration books with them when shopping, so the relevant coupon or coupons could be cancelled.

Wartime rationing in Britain finally ended in 1954. For the most part the system had been a success. While not exactly an enjoyable experience, and one that was still subject to abuses, rationing did succeed in keeping the population fed. Affecting everyone, it offered a sense of “we’re all in it together”[1], an idea that, perhaps, has value in today's crisis.  Like the war, the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end and, like the war, there will be casualties.  Yet there is still no reason for us to panic.  While clearly not wishing serious illness or death on anyone, the harsh reality is that the majority of people will be absolutely fine[2].  We would, however, benefit from a little of that Blitz Spirit (fiction or not) in the coming days: voluntary rationing, buying only what we actually need to reduce the strain on supermarket supply chains and their staff, and supporting each other.  Perhaps it does make sense that we Keep Calm and Carry On.

1. The truth of that morale-boosting sentiment is debatable. The idea of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ is a fiction, a misconstrued concept where the people’s grim willingness to carry on because they had no other choice was interpreted, perhaps purposefully, into well-constructed propaganda. For an enlightening different view, Shannon Bent's piece on "The Blitz Spirit" is worth a read: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Blitz-Spirit/
2.  Globally, up to 18 March 2020, WHO has been notified of 191,127 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection, including 7,807 related deaths.  In the UK there have been 103 deaths attributable to COVID-19 to date.  Compare that to Public Health England figures revealing an average of 8,000 deaths are caused by influenza each year in the UK.