Wednesday, December 01, 2021

On This Day

December 1st, 1581: Having been convicted of high treason, English Jesuit priest Edmund Campion was drawn through the streets of London, hanged and then quartered at Tyburn.

As a devout Catholic, Campion had been conducting an underground ministry in what was then officially Protestant England. Religion during Queen Elizabeth I's reign was a powder keg where one little spark could have plunged England into civil war. It is a rather complicated subject but here goes an attempt to explain what was going on.

Henry VIII's split with Rome  For many centuries the dominant religion in England, as with the rest of Europe, was Christianity as represented by the Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome. Elizabeth’s father, Henry Vlll, brought religious upheaval to England when the Catholic Church frustrated Henry’s desire and refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In 1534 Henry passed a law making himself head of the Church of England. This one act precipitated a break with the Catholic Church, allowed Henry to divorce his wife, and led to the formation of the Protestant Church of England.

Edward VI  Although his father, Henry VIII, had severed the link between the Church and Rome, Henry VIII had never permitted the renunciation of Catholic doctrine or ceremony. It was during his son Edward VI's reign that Protestantism was established for the first time in England. With it came reforms that included the abolition of the Mass and clerical celibacy, meaning priests could marry, and the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 which made compulsory services in English not Latin.

By 1553 it had became clear that Edward was suffering from tuberculosis and would not live long. John Dudley, by then Duke of Northumberland, was determined that England's religious reforms should not be undone, so he persuaded Edward to approve a new order of succession. This declared Edward's half-sister Mary illegitimate and that the throne would pass to Northumberland's daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, a more distant descendant of Henry VIII. Edward's reign came to a premature end with his death on July 6th, 1553 aged just 15. Three days later Jane was acclaimed queen but her reign lasted only nine days until, with overwhelming popular support, her Catholic cousin Mary took the throne.

Mary I  A devout Catholic, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Mary was determined to crush the Protestant faith in which her half-sister Elizabeth had been educated. Mary ordered that everyone attend Catholic Mass; Elizabeth had to outwardly conform. Mary's initial popularity ebbed away in 1554 when she announced plans to marry Philip of Spain, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and an active defender of the Catholic faith. Discontent spread rapidly through the country, and many looked to Elizabeth as a focus for their opposition to Mary's religious policies. Unsurprisingly this greatly endangered Elizabeth’s life.

Elizabeth  In 1558 upon Mary's death, Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister to the throne and set out to rule by good counsel. In government, Elizabeth was more moderate than her father and half-siblings had been. One of her mottoes was "video et taceo" ("I see but say nothing").

In religion, she was relatively tolerant and avoided a return to systematic persecution of those with different religious views. Elizabeth therefore sought a Protestant solution that would not offend Catholics too greatly while addressing the desires of English Protestants. As a result, the parliament of 1559 started to legislate for a church based on the Protestant settlement of Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI, with the monarch as its head, but with many Catholic elements. For example, Elizabeth was raised a Protestant but, much as her father had done before, kept many Catholic symbols, such as the crucifix, and practices. Elizabeth and her advisers, however, were well aware of the threat of a Catholic crusade against heretical England. The Pope declared her illegitimate in 1570 and released her subjects from obedience to her. As a consequence, several conspiracies threatened Elizabeth’s life, but all were defeated with the help of her ministers' secret service.

High Treason
  Enter Edward Campion. In 1580, the Jesuit mission to England began and Campion was fervently involved in ministering to England's Catholic minority. Campion's administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire, and the publication of his pamphlet Decem Rationes ('Ten Reasons') arguing against the validity of the Anglican Church, were deemed threats to Elizabeth's reign. The hunt for Campion was stepped up until he was eventually captured preaching in Berkshire on July 15th, 1581. After four months of imprisonment, questioning and torture, on November 14th Campion was finally 'charged with having conspired, in Rome and Reims, to raise a sedition in the realm and dethrone the Queen.' Found guilty of treason, Campion and two fellow priests were sentenced to death by Lord Chief Justice Wray:

'You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty's pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls.'

Execution of the sentence  To be 'hanged, drawn and quartered' became a statutory penalty for men convicted of high treason in the Kingdom of England from 1352. The severity of the sentence was measured against the seriousness of the crime. As an attack on the English monarchy's authority, high treason was considered a deplorable act demanding the most extreme form of punishment aimed fully at discouraging others. Thus many English Catholic priests executed during the Elizabethan era were subjected to the law's ultimate sanction.

Once sentenced, the convicted were usually held in prison for a few days before being taken to the place of execution; in Campion's case Tyburn (now Marble Arch, London). But was he 'hung, drawn and quartered' as it is popularly expressed or 'drawn, hung and quartered'? Indeed, is there a 'correct' sequence (note the 19th-century sentence wording in the InfoBox below right)? Were we to rigidly follow Lord Wray's pronouncement then Campion would have been 'drawn, hanged, drawn (again) and quartered'. It seems to be the term 'drawn' that causes the confusion as it can mean both publicly dragged through the streets and/or removing the viscera or intestines of the victim (disembowelling).

During the High Middle Ages the convicted traitor may have been tied directly to the back of a horse. Later it became customary for the victim to be tied instead to a wicker hurdle, or wooden panel, that was itself fastened to and drawn behind a horse to the place of execution. There the traitor would be hanged, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). The victim's remains would often be displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge, to serve as a warning of the fate of traitors. Note that the personal pronoun 'he' is deliberately used in this context as, for reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.

Hanging almost to the point of death and the subsequent emasculation and disembowelment were, it seems, not necessarily the fate of most traitors. As historian and author Ian Mortimer argues [1]: 'the evisceration of a criminal does not appear to have been described as "drawing" before modern times.' While it certainly took place on many occasions, the presumption that drawing meant to disembowel is dubious. As Mortimer suggests: 'A more likely reason for "drawing" being often mentioned after "hanging" is because it was a supplementary aspect of the punishment...[D]eath was the main punishment, being "drawn" to the gallows like a traitor simply an added humiliation.'

And finally  Campion was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is celebrated every 1st of December.


1. Mortimer, I., (2010), Why do we say 'hanged, drawn and quartered?' (accessed December 1st, 2021).

Friday, November 26, 2021

Black Friday

On November 18th, 1910, three hundred female protesters marched to the Houses of Parliament as part of their campaign to secure voting rights for women. What happened next saw the women met with violence from the police and male bystanders. The shocking nature of the violence led to the day being christened ‘Black Friday’.

Genesis of the Suffragettes
  The demonstration was one of many orchestrated by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation formed in 1903 by the political activist Emmeline Pankhurst. After the failure of a private member's bill to introduce the vote for women, the WSPU increasingly began to use militant direct action to campaign for women's suffrage [1]. The first such act was in October 1905 when, during a Liberal rally at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting attended by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey to shout: ‘Will the Liberal government give votes to women?’ After unfurling a banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’ and shouting, they were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction. Pankhurst was taken into custody for a technical assault on a police officer after she spat at him to provoke an arrest. Refusing to pay the fines levied against them, they were sent to prison [2].

According to the historian Caroline Morrell, from 1905 the ‘basic pattern of WSPU activities over the next few years had been established - pre-planned militant tactics, imprisonment claimed as martyrdom, publicity and increased membership and funds’ [3]. By 1906 WSPU members adopted the name ‘suffragettes’ to differentiate themselves from the ‘suffragists’ of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, who employed constitutional methods in their campaign for the vote. Interestingly, the label of suffragette was first used in an article by Daily Mail journalist by Charles E. Hands. According to Elizabeth Crawford, a researcher and author on the women's suffrage movement, the intention of the ‘ette’ suffix was ‘to belittle and to show that they were less than the proper kind of suffrage worker…but they took up the name and were very proud of it’ [4].

During the January 1910 general election campaign the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, H. H. Asquith, promised to introduce a Conciliation Bill to allow a measure of women's suffrage in national elections. When returned to power he went so far as to form a committee of pro-women's suffrage MPs from several political parties. The committee proposed legislation that would have added a million women to the franchise. Unsurprisingly, the suffrage movement supported the legislation. Although MPs backed the bill and passed its first and second readings, Asquith refused to grant it further parliamentary time. On November 18th, following a breakdown in relations between the House of Commons and House of Lords over the 1910 budget, Asquith called another general election, and said that parliament would be dissolved on November 28th.

  The WSPU saw the move as a betrayal and organised a protest march to parliament from Caxton Hall in Westminster. Lines of police and crowds of male bystanders met three hundred female protestors outside the Houses of Parliament; the women were attacked for the next six hours. Many women complained about the sexual nature of the assaults. Police arrested four men and 115 women, although the following day all charges were dropped. The conciliation committee were angered by the accounts, and undertook interviews with 135 demonstrators, nearly all of whom described acts of violence against the women; 29 of the statements included details of sexual assault. Calls for a public inquiry, however, were rejected by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill.

The demonstration led to a change in approach. Many members of the WSPU were unwilling to risk similar violence, so they resumed their previous forms of direct action, such as stone-throwing and window-breaking, which afforded time to escape. The police also changed their tactics; during future demonstrations they tried not to arrest too soon or too late.

At a demonstration in October 1909, at which the WSPU again attempted to rush into parliament, ten demonstrators were taken to hospital. The suffragettes did not complain about the rising level of police violence. Constance Lytton wrote that ‘the word went round that we were to conceal as best we might, our various injuries. It was no part of our policy to get the police into trouble’ [5] The level of violence in suffragette action increased throughout 1909: bricks were thrown at the windows of Liberal Party meetings; Asquith was attacked while leaving church; and roof tiles were thrown at police when another political rally was interrupted. Public opinion turned against the tactics and, according to Morrell, the government capitalised on the shifting public feeling to introduce stronger measures. Thus, in October 1909, Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary, instructed that all prisoners on hunger strike should be force fed [6].

Turning point  In 1912 the suffragettes turned to using more militant tactics and began a window-smashing campaign. Some members of the WSPU, including Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband Frederick, disagreed with this strategy but their objections were ignored by Christabel Pankhurst. The Government’s response was to order the arrest of the WSPU leaders. While Christabel Pankhurst escaped to France, the Pethick-Lawrences were arrested, tried and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. On their release, the Pethick-Lawrences began to speak out publicly against the window-smashing campaign, arguing that it would lose support for the cause. Unsurprisingly, as they were effectively challenging the WSPU’s leadership, the Pethick-Lawrences were expelled from the movement.

The suffragette campaign escalated to target infrastructure, government, churches and the general public. Activists continued smashing windows but now the places frequented by the wealthy (typically men), such as cricket pavilions, horse-racing pavilions, churches, castles and second homes, were targeted for arson attacks. Initially these properties were burnt and destroyed while they were unattended, to lessen the risk to life but, as the WSPU evolved into what is a recognisable terrorist organisation, incendiary attacks were supplemented by a wider bombing campaign. On February 19th, 1913, for example, Pinfold Manor in Surrey, which was being built for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, was targeted with two bombs. While only one device exploded, causing significant damage, in her memoirs, Sylvia Pankhurst said that Emily Davison had carried out the attack [8].

During the WSPU’s most militant years from 1910 to 1914 [7], Parliamentary Papers record the use of improvised explosive devices, letter bombs, arson using 'incendiary devices', assassination attempts and other forms of direct action and violence such as postbox burning telegraph cable cutting and artwork destruction (including an axe attack upon a painting of The Duke of Wellington in the National Gallery). In a six-month period in 1913 [8] there were 250 arson or destruction attacks, and in April the newspapers reported ‘What might have been the most serious outrage yet perpetrated by the Suffragettes’:

‘Policemen discovered inside the railings of the Bank of England a bomb timed to explode at midnight. It contained 3oz of powerful explosive, some metal, and a number of hairpins - the last named constituent, no doubt to make known the source of the intended sensation. The bomb was similar to that used in the attempt to blow up Oxted Railway Station. It contained a watch with attachment for explosion, but was clumsily fitted. If it had exploded when the streets were crowded a number of people would probably have been injured.’

At least five people were killed (including one suffragette), and at least 24 were injured (including two suffragettes). Given that the WSPU’s bombing campaign saw devices planted in churches, packed train carriages, halls and stations, it seems incredible that more people were not hurt. Fortunately for the intended victims the home-made bombs tended to fizz, splutter and smoke, unlike modern, refined explosives that detonate instantly, and thus gave people time to get away.

World War One  Only at the outbreak of World War One was the escalating militancy of the suffragettes finally curbed. In August 1914, the British Government released all prisoners who had been incarcerated for suffrage activities on an amnesty. Soon after the mainstream suffragette movement, represented by the Pankhurst's WSPU, ended all militant suffrage activities [9]. Those more familiar with the lifecycle of terrorist groups will not be surprised to discover that a more extremist element, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Suffrage Federation, split from the WSPU determined to continue the struggle. Regardless, women eagerly volunteered to take on many traditional male roles which would lead ultimately to a new perception of social roles. The suffragettes' focus on war work turned waning public opinion in favour of women’s eventual partial enfranchisement in 1918 [10].

Suffragette success?
  It is still debated what impact the activities of the suffrage movements, especially the suffragettes, and the Great War had on women's emancipation. The consensus of historical opinion is that the militant campaign was not effective [11]. In May 1913 an attempt made to vote through a bill in parliament to introduce women's suffrage actually did worse than previous attempts, something which much of the press blamed on the increasingly violent tactics of the suffragettes [12]. Indeed, it seems that the impact of the WSPU's violent attacks drove many members of the general public away from supporting the cause, and some members of the WSPU itself were also alienated by the escalation of violence, which led to splits in the organisation. So, with the suspension of the WSPU’s militant campaign suspended at the outbreak of war in 1914, the aim of gaining votes for women was still unrealised. The WSPU had failed to create the kind of ‘national crisis’ which might have forced the government into concessions [13].

In contrast, the suffragists of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who had always employed ‘constitutional’ methods, continued to lobby for women’s right to vote during the war years. In the aftermath of the Great War, millions of soldiers returning home were still not entitled to vote. This simple fact posed a problem for British politicians. How could they be seen to withhold the vote from the very men who had just fought to preserve the British democratic political system? Although it is unlikely the enfranchisement of women was in recognition of their contribution to the war effort, the compromises worked out between the NUWSS and the coalition government [14] led to the Representation of the People Act 1918, an attempt to solve the dilemma. The Act was passed into law by Royal Assent on February 6th, 1918, enfranchising all adult males over 21 years old who were resident householders. It also gave the right to vote to women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications [15]. Overnight some 8.4 million women were enfranchised [15]. Later that year, in November, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected to parliament [15]. Even so, it would take a further ten years before women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men. The Representation of the People Act 1928 finally extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, thereby granting women the vote on the same terms that men had gained ten years earlier.

The terrorism controversy  Both the suffragettes themselves and police spoke of a ‘Reign of Terror’ referring to the arson and bomb attacks as ‘terrorism’; a view echoed in newspaper headlines such as the Pall Mall Gazette’s ‘Suffragette Terrorism’ [16]. Indeed, Emmeline Pankhurst called the militancy ‘continued, destructive guerrilla warfare against the Government’ in contemporary suffragette pamphlets. There is no doubt that in her own words, Pankhurst acknowledged the WSPU possessed all the hallmarks of what we would today define as a terrorist group.

Yet there is some indication that in later years the suffragettes made a co-ordinated attempt to remove references to their most violent acts from published memoirs. Cultural historian Dr Fern Riddell has extensively investigated the scrapbook of one suffragette, Kitty Marion (pictured right). The scrapbook contained stories of her hunger strikes, arson attacks, prison escapes, and reports of bombings where the attacker is not identified. Interestingly, while Kitty Marion is frank about her arson attacks, she is coy about the bombs [16]. Significantly, from Riddell’s hours of research a little-known history of the suffragettes began to emerge.

Reportedly, when Riddell first began to speak out publicly about Kitty Marion's violent record, she faced a backlash from some suffragette historians. At least one claimed Riddell’s research was 'shameful' and should 'not continue'. Other historians were more defensive saying that there had been no widescale whitewashing of suffragette memory. Yet in schools we frequently encounter a highly sanitised version of suffragette history ignorant of its very obvious terrorist credentials. Few teachers or their pupils are familiar with the idea of suffragette bombers or even that they were called terrorists at the time.

In the 1930s, the Suffragette Fellowship, responsible for compiling the sources on the movement often used by later historians, decided that they were not going to mention any of the bombings in any of the sources [18]. This is understandable as it would protect former suffragettes from prosecution, but it was also an attempt to step away from the violent rhetoric and to change the cultural memory of the suffragette movement [18]. Yet with the release of many official sources on suffragette violence from the archives, a different interpretation is being revealed.

Modern interpretation
  Today we are probably less familiar with the suffragists than the suffragettes. Largely this is because the latter’s campaign of ‘Deeds not Words’ epitomises the power of propaganda and media manipulation to maximise the ‘oxygen of publicity’ that radicals, like the suffragettes, need to survive and prosper. So, it is remains controversial, and contrary to the movement’s own account of its history, and the version more recently championed by descendants of the Pankhursts, to contend that the WSPU was not entirely blameless for the violence on Black Friday. Any objective study of the suffragette movement ought to consider the similarities between the WSPU and likeminded activist groups who often evolve towards radicalism and increasingly violent action.

While radicalism poses a threat, extremism, particularly terrorism, is the main concern of governments since it involves active subversion of democratic values and the rule of law [19]. It is easy to see how forceful individuals desiring radical change, like Emeline Pankhurst, can become frustrated with the perceived lack of progress. In general, those who feel left behind and resent injustice are more prone to becoming radicalised. Significantly, the evolution from radical to terrorist thrives in environments characterised by a shared sense of injustice, exclusion and real or perceived humiliation. Kinship, friendship, group dynamics and socialisation all trigger an individual’s association with radicalisation, and all these factors were clearly inherent within the WSPU.

Radicalisation  Disaffected individuals in groups such as the WSPU will characteristically follow different paths to different levels of radicalisation. So, understanding the origins of violent radicalisation means recognising that terrorist groups consist of different types of disaffected individuals from a variety of social backgrounds [19][20]. The decision to use violence, however, characteristically involves a smaller number of radicalised individuals within a specific group. In these terms, it is easy to see parallels displayed by the Pankhurst’s leadership and within the wider suffragette movement.

Acts of terrorism are usually how its perpetrators, lacking mass support, attempt to realise a political or religious objective [21]. Terrorism generally involves a series of punctuated acts of demonstrative public violence, followed by threats of continuation intended to impress, intimidate and/or coerce target audiences. In the case of the suffragettes, the obvious political cause was obtaining votes for women, and the WSPU’s progression from militancy to direct action and of violence have all the hallmarks of an evolution toward terrorism. By any official definition, the WSPU was a terrorist organisation. Sadly the legacy of the suffragette campaign was to inspire the later arson, bombing and terrorist campaigns adopted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Great Britain.

Positive outcomes  Eight years after Black Friday and 1918 proved to be a significant year. In the post-war ‘land fit for heroes’ many of the social barriers that had pervaded Victorian and Edwardian Britain had been irrevocably broken. In this context, and although a small step towards universal suffrage, giving women over the age of 30 the right to vote was most likely symptomatic of changing social mores. A year later the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. Yet in the very same year, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices, meant that men should be given priority in employment. Many women found themselves pushed back into the home, back into caring roles for husbands many bearing the physical and mental scars from the fighting.

The clock could not be turned back entirely, however. Women in Britain, and further afield, had found new independence and had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the Great War would have been unthinkable. In 1918 women's emancipation had taken its first steps on a long road.


1. Holton, S.S., (2017), ‘Women's Social and Political Union (act. 1903–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Available on-line (accessed October 22nd, 2021).
2. Pankhurst, C., (1959), ‘The Story of How we Won the Vote’, Pethick-Lawrence, F. (ed.), London: Hutchinson.
3. Morrell, C., (1981), 'Black Friday': Violence Against Women in the Suffragette Movement, London: Women's Research and Resources Centre.
4. BBC News, (2018), ‘100 Women: Suffragists or suffragettes - who won women the vote?’, Available on-line: (accessed October 22nd, 2021)
Crawford, E., (2003), ‘The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928’, London: UCL Press.
5. Lytton, C., (1914), ‘Prisons & Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences’, London: Heinemann.
6. Morrell, C., (1981), 'Black Friday': Violence Against Women in the Suffragette Movement, London: Women's Research and Resources Centre.
7. Atkinson, D., (2018), ‘Rise up, women! : the remarkable lives of the suffragettes’, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 187 - 510.
8. Porter, I., (2013), ‘Suffragette attack on Lloyd-George’, London Town Walks, Available on-line (accessed November 28th, 2021).
9. Purvis, J., (1995a), ‘The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes in Edwardian Britain’, Women's History Review 4 (1), pp. 103 - 133.
10. Jones, J. G., (2003), ‘Lloyd George and the Suffragettes’, National Library of Wales Journal 33#1, pp. 1 - 34.
11. Bearman, C. J., (2005). ‘An Examination of Suffragette Violence’, The English Historical Review 120 (486), pp. 365 - 397.
12. Webb, S., (2014), ‘The Suffragette Bombers: Britain's Forgotten Terrorists’, Pen and Sword.
13. Rosen, A., (2013), ‘Rise Up, Women!: The Militant Campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union, 1903-1914’, London: Routledge. pp. 242–245.
14.Cawood, I. and McKinnon-Bell, D., (2001), ‘The First World War’, London: Routledge, p. 71.
15. Fawcett, Millicent Garrett, The Women's Victory – and After, Cambridge University Press, p. 170.
16. Mohan, M., (2018), ‘Kitty Marion: The actress who became a “terrorist”’, BBC News, Available on-line (accessed November 26th, 2021).
17. Riddell, F., (2018), ‘Death in Ten Minutes: The forgotten life of radical suffragette Kitty Marion’, Hodder & Stoughton.
18. "Books interview with Fern Riddell: "Can we call the suffragettes terrorists? Absolutely", HistoryExtra, Available on-line (accessed November 28th, 2021).
19. Reinares, F., (2008), ‘Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism’, European Commission's Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation.
20. This report, published by the European Commission, analyses empirical facts on violent radicalisation, recent academic literature and the link between external conflicts and violent radicalisation. More research on individuals who join terrorist groups, terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and training, and types and development of current radicalisation processes, would inform future state response strategies.
21. According to the Security Service (MI5) ‘terrorist groups use violence and threats of violence to publicise their causes and as a means to achieve their goals. They often aim to influence or exert pressure on governments and government policies but reject democratic processes, or even democracy itself.’

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The humble sausage
  The humble sausage is popular the world over with many nations and individual regions having their own characteristic versions using the meats and other ingredients native to that region and employed in traditional dishes. The word ‘sausage’ can refer to the loose ground or minced meat, typically pork, beef or poultry combined with salt, spices and other flavourings, which can be formed into patties or stuffed into a skin. Other ingredients such as grains or breadcrumbs may be included as fillers or extenders.

What we usually think of as ‘a sausage’ is the cylindrical product encased in a skin. Traditionally casings use animal intestine, but mass-produced versions are more likely made from synthetic materials. Sausages that are sold raw are cooked in many ways, including pan-frying, broiling and barbecuing. Some sausages are cooked during processing such that the casing may be removed.

Sausage making is also a traditional food preservation technique by curing, drying (often in association with fermentation or culturing, which can contribute to preservation), smoking, or freezing. Some cured or smoked sausages can be stored without refrigeration. Most fresh sausages must be refrigerated or frozen until they are cooked.

History  According to the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary the first known use of the word ‘sausage’ was in the 15th-century in the meaning defined right. In Middle English ‘sausige’ was derived from Norman French ‘sauseche’ or ‘saucis’, which was itself derived from the Late Latin ‘salsicia’ (from Latin salsus, ‘salted’).

The salt link makes sense as traditionally sausage makers salted various meat scraps, offal, blood and fat to help preserve them. These mixes were stuffed into casings made from the cleaned intestines of the animal thereby producing the characteristic cylindrical shape. Unsurprisingly sausages, puddings and salami are among some of the oldest of prepared foods, whether cooked and eaten immediately or preserved to varying degrees. The historical record on sausages begins around 4,000 years ago. An Akkadian cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia, for example, records a dish of intestine casings filled with some sort of forcemeat [1][2].

In China a type of sausage, lup cheong, is recorded from the Northern and Southern dynasties (589 BC to 420 BC). It is described as made from goat and lamb meat with salt, and flavoured with green onion, bean sauce, ginger, and pepper [3].

Sausages were popular with both the ancient Greeks and the Romans, and most likely with the various tribes occupying the larger part of Europe. The earliest appearance in classical literature, for example, is of a type of blood sausage mentioned around 800 BC in Book 18 of Homer's classic saga ‘The Odyssey’ [4]:

‘Here at the fire are goats' paunches lying, which we set there for supper, when we had filled them with fat and blood.’

Later, Hesychius mentions that, in 500 BC, the Greek dramatist and philosopher Epicharmus of Kos [5] wrote a comedy called Orya (‘The Sausage’; literally meaning ‘the pork’). Further literary evidence for sausages in ancient Greece is provided by Aristophanes' comedic play Hippeis (‘The Knights’). The play is a satire on political and social life in 5th-century BC Athens in which a sausage-seller vies for the confidence and approval of Demos, an elderly man who symbolizes the Athenian citizenry [6][7].

An early example of Italian sausage is lucanica, discovered by Romans after the conquest of Lucania, a historical region of southern Italy. The descendants of this ancient Roman sausage, its recipe greatly changed over the millennia, can be found in Italy (luganega), Spain (longaniza), Portugal (linguiça), Greece (loukaniko), Bulgaria (lukanka) and beyond [8]. Today, this sausage is identified as Lucanica di Picerno, which is produced in Basilicata whose territory was part of the ancient Lucania [9][10].

Thanks to the Romans, the first recognisable recipe using lengths of intestine rather than a stomach as the casing can be found in Book 2 of Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (‘On Cookery’). The Apician recipe botellum sic facies instructs the cook to [12]:

‘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.’

From the Middle Ages, various European cities became known for their local sausage varieties, differing only by the types of meats that are used, the flavouring or spicing ingredients (garlic, peppers, wine, etc.), and the manner of preparation. Types such as the ‘Frankfurter’ (Frankfurt am Main), ‘Bologna’ (Bologna, Italy), and ‘Romano’ (Rome) are instantly recognizable being named for their places of origin. Likewise, salami (named for the salting process, Italian: salare, ‘to salt’) is a similarly popular type of sausage with numerous national and regional varieties.

One final thought  Given the definition, etymology and our brief history, why exactly would any vegetarian or vegan eat a sausage? Just a thought. Bon appétit.


1. Bottéro, J. (1985), ‘The Cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia’, The Biblical Archaeologist, 48(1), 36-47, Available on-line: (accessed October 25th, 2021).

2. ‘Forcemeat. is derived from the French farcir, ‘to stuff’ and describes a uniform mixture of lean meat with fat made by grinding, sieving, or puréeing the ingredients.

3. Zeuthen, P., (2007), ‘A Historical Perspective of Meat Fermentation, Early Records Of Fermented Meat Products, Raw Cured Ham’, in Toldrá, Fidel (ed.), Handbook of fermented meat and poultry, p. 4.

4. Homer's Odyssey, Line 44, translated by A.T. Murray.

5. Epicharmus wrote between thirty-five and fifty-two comedies though many have been lost or exist only in fragments.

6. Demos meaning the ordinary citizens of an ancient Greek city-state.

7. Aristophanes’ ‘The Knights’, Classical Literature, Accessed October 26th, 2021.

8. Perry, C., (2012), ‘Forklore: A Very Important Sausage’, Los Angeles Times (accessed October 26th, 2021).

9. Riley, G., (2007), ‘The Oxford Companion to Italian Food’, Oxford: OUP, pp. 301-302.

10. ‘The Lucanica di Picerno, A Historical Sausage’, Arte Cibo (accessed October 26th, 2021)

11. The Roman festival of Lupercalia was held on February 15th, involving Juno Lucina, and is usually understood as a rite of purification and fertility to purify the city, promoting health and fertility. Lupercalia was also known as dies Februatus after the goat thong whips called februa used in the rituals and was the basis for the month named Februarius (February).

12. Edwards, J., (1988), ‘The Roman Cookery of Apicius’, London: Rider, p.26.

Educating Romans

In ancient Rome ludus (pl. ludi) referred to a private school outside the home where a teacher (called a litterator or a magister ludi, and often of Greek origin) taught boys and some girls at the age of 7 basic reading, writing, arithmetic, and sometimes Greek, until the age of 11.

For the most part, however, about 80% of Romans survived as artisans or by farming their small patch of land to feed their families and maybe produce a surplus to buy what they could not grow. Education was only of interest to people of leisure, in other words, the wealthy. Their aim was to rise through the cursus honorum ('course of honours', or more colloquially 'ladder of offices'). This was the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring men of senatorial rank in the Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire. The cursus honorum comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts; the ultimate prize for winning election to each 'rung' in the ladder was to become one of the two consuls in a given year.

Education, therefore, was designed to provide the job training to achieve success. The elite were taught at home (including girls who mainly learned to read and write), but for those who could afford it, attending a private school or ludus was an option. Lessons concentrated on the correct use of language. Accurate reading, writing and pronunciation of Greek and Latin were the focus from ages six to nine. Higher literacy skills were developed from nine to twelve, especially rigorous grammatical and linguistic analysis of poetry. From then on until age 17 the emphasis turned to rhetoric and developing the ability to persuade by argument. In the process moral and philosophical judgement was honed. For a few, a year studying in Greece became a finishing school in all things intellectual and artistic.


1. From an article by Peter Jones in ‘Q&A’, BBC History Magazine October 2021, p. 57.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

A Century equals Eighty?

With the title ‘5 Facts You DIDN’T KNOW About The Romans’ a recent YouTube video sounded intriguing. In ascending order, the first fact, number five beginning at 45 seconds, introduces the idea that a centurion commands 100 men but then states that if you research the Roman army you will discover a century was only 80 strong. This is indeed the case, but the fact ‘you didn’t know’ was that a century was indeed 80 soldiers, but 100 men. The argument goes that a contubernium of eight soldiers included two often forgotten or unmentioned slaves. In other words, a century comprising ten contubernia equals 80 soldiers plus 20 slaves for a total of 100 men. Unfortunately, in this two-minute segment no references were provided, so we thought we would have a look.

Definitions  First stop, Wikipedia. The entry for ‘Contubernium (Roman Army Unit)’ is largely based on an article published on the ThoughtCo website written by NS Gill, an ancient history and Latin expert from Minnesota, USA. Under the subtitle ‘Contubernium of Soldiers in the Roman Army’ her entry reads (Gill, 2018):

‘There was one leather sleeping tent to cover a group of eight legionaries. This smallest military group was referred to as a contubernium and the eight men were contubernales [1]. Each contubernium had a mule to carry the tent and two support troops. Ten such groups made up a century. Every soldier carried two stakes and digging tools so they could set up camp each night. There would also be enslaved people associated with each cohort. Military historian Jonathan Roth [2] estimated there were two calones or enslaved people associated with each contubernium.’

For those unfamiliar with the Latin terms or Roman military organisation, then some explanation is in order. Firstly, according to William Smith’s ‘A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities’:

‘…in its original meaning, contubernales (σύσκηνοι) signified men who served in the same army and lived in the same tent. The term is derived from taberna, which, according to Festus, was the original name for a military tent as it was made of boards (tabulae). Each tent was occupied by ten soldiers (contubernales), with a subordinate officer at their head, who was called decanus, and in later times caput contubernii (Vegetius, Epitoma Rei Militaris, II.8, 13; cf. Cicero, pro Q. Ligario oratio, 7; Hirtius, De Bello Alexdrino, 16)’ (Smith, 1875, s.v.).

Interestingly Smith refers to ‘ten soldiers’ (our emphasis above) led by a decanus, a ‘chief of ten’ in late Latin. Today we might presume a decanus was a non-commissioned officer (NCO) but the rank structure in the Roman army does not equate to current models. A decanus was more likely the senior or longest serving soldier in the conturbernium. Smith’s definition makes no reference to servants or slaves. Yet Gill cites Roth to introduce two calones, a term derived from Latin calo ‘a servant in the army, soldier's servant’ (Lewis and Short, 1879). Was Smith correct or is the answer Roth’s estimated addition of two slaves per conturbnium of eight soldiers. Frustratingly, most contemporary definitions of the conturbernium include the eight soldiers but make no mention of two calones. Yet, as Smith definition of calones bears out, they clearly existed from the accounts of ancient authors such as Festus, Servius and Gaius Julius Caesar himself:

‘…the servants of the Roman soldiers, said to have been so called from carrying wood (κᾶλα) for their use (Festus, s.v.; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. VI.1). They are generally supposed to have been slaves, and they almost formed a part of the army, as we may learn from many passages in Caesar: in fact, we are told by Josephus that, from away living with the soldiers and being present at their exercises, they were inferior to them alone in skill and valour…The word calo, however, was also applied to farm-servants.’ (Smith, 1875, s.v.)

So, despite evidence for two slave/servants per contubermium, modern descriptions of the Roman army ignore them in favour of the 80-soldier Century typical of the early Imperial period, or Principate, onward. If, however, we travel back into Roman military history, then we do find evidence for a Century being 100 strong.

Centuria  The Roman Century, or centuria, is derived from the Latin word centum meaning ‘one hundred’. Yet, as with most words, there is more than one sense in which centuria can be used. In military parlance it was a division of Roman infantry, the smallest tactical unit of a legion. According to Lewis and Short’s 1879 ‘Latin Dictionary’ the term centuria also meant:
  • An assemblage or a division consisting of a hundred things of a kind; hence in general any division, even if it did not consist of a hundred.
  • A unit of area, specifically in agriculture where it represented a number of acres.
  • One of the one hundred and ninety-three orders (‘centuries’) into which the second Etruscan king, Servius Tullius, divided the Roman people according to value of their property. The assemblies in which the people voted according to centuries were called comitia centuriata.
The latter definition is significant because it gives a clue how the centuries in the Roman army were originally of 100 men and why, even when later they varied between 60 and 160 men, the term ‘century’ continued to be applied.

The Etrusco-Roman Army  The early Roman army (Latin: exercitus Romanus) of the Roman Kingdom and of the early Roman Republic was based on an annual levy. The army consisted of 3,000 infantrymen and 300 cavalrymen, the latter all being drawn from the wealthiest social class known as equites, the ‘equestrians’. The Latin, Sabine and Etruscan tribes under the Roman command would each provide an extra 1,000 soldiers and 100 cavalrymen. At this time, when warfare chiefly consisted of small-scale plundering raids, it has been suggested that the army followed Etruscan or Greek models of organisation and equipment.

While much of Roman history of this period is founded on legends, during the reign of Servius Tullius, the army was reformed or, rather, refined. Accordingly, all healthy, property-owning male Roman citizens were divided into five distinct classes for military service, from the poorest in the ‘fifth class’ to the richest in the ‘first class and the equestrians above them’. This socio-economic class system was based on the individual's wealth since soldiers had to provide their own weapons and equipment. The highest social class, the equestrians, continued to serve in the mounted cavalry units known as equites. The five other classes were organised, according to their voting tribe, into infantry units of 100 men called centuria (‘centuries’). Presumably the commanders of these centuria where the centuriones (‘centurions’). If so, then the first centurions did indeed command 100 soldiers as the name implies.

At first there were only four Roman legions (Latin: legio (pl. legiones); from legere (‘to choose; to collect’). The term legio therefore has the meaning of a selection or chosen body of men; hence it is often described as a levy. These legions were numbered ‘I’ to ‘IIII’, where first legion was seen as the most prestigious and fourth was not written ‘IV’. The bulk of this army was made up of Roman citizens. These citizens could not choose the legion to which they were allocated, however. Any man ‘from ages 16 to 46 were selected by ballot’ and assigned to a legion.

Mid-Republic  At some point, possibly in the beginning of the Roman Republic after the kings were overthrown, the legio (or ‘levy’) was subdivided into two separate legions each commanded by one of the two annually elected Consuls who controlled Roman affairs. In the first years of the Republic, when warfare consisted of mostly raids, it is uncertain if the full manpower of these legions was ever summoned at one time. The legions became organised in a more formal way in the 4th-century BC, as the Roman method of waging war evolved into more frequent and planned operations, and each consular army was increased to two legions. In the Republic, however, these legions had a short-lived existence. Excepting Legions I to IV that formed the consular army (i.e. two per Consul), other units were levied according to the needs of the campaign. At the same time, Rome's Italian allies were required to provide a legion in support of each Roman legion.

The Manipular Legion  With the appearance of the military tribunes after 331 BC (at first these tribunes took turns as the legion's commanding officer) the internal organisation of the legion became more sophisticated. The developments from the classic phalanx to the ‘manipular’ system also allowed important tactical innovations. More importantly, for the first time, the classes of soldiers who comprised the legions were based on experience and age rather than wealth, with standard weapons and equipment issued by the state. In the middle years of the Republic, the Roman army was organised into three lines, the Hastatii, the Principes, and the Triarii. Each of these three lines was subdivided into maniples of 120, 120 and 60 men, respectively. A full legion, therefore, still fielded about 3,000 men.

The maniples each consisted of two centuriae (centuries) and each maniple was commanded by the senior of the two centurions. Centuries were nominally 80 soldiers strong (not the expected 100 of the earlier levy), but in practice might be as few as 60, especially in the less numerous maniples of Triarii. Each century had its own standard and, as before, comprised ten contubernia.

And finally  Although the army continued to evolve, the century system endured. Thus, throughout the Principate the 80-man century persisted to eventually become one of those well-known, but seemingly contradictory, facts. Centurions, therefore, certainly commanded 80 fighting men but as allude to by our ancient authors, they also were responsible for at least a further 20 calones. Thus Centurions were responsible for a total strength appropriate to any definition of their rank, 100 men.


1. In a wider sense, the name contubernales was applied to any persons connected by ties of intimate friendship and living under the same roof.

2. Roth, J., (1994), ‘The Size and Organization of the Roman Imperial Legion’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 43, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1994), pp. 346-362.


Gill, N.S., (2018), ‘The Roman Army of the Roman Republic’, ThoughtCo., Available on-line: (accessed 12 October 2021).

Lewis, C.T. and Short, C., (1879), A Latin Dictionary, s.v. ‘calo’, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Smith, W., (1875), ‘A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities’, s.v. ‘Conturbernales’, London: John Murray.

Ancient sources:

Publius (or Flavius) Vegetius Renatus, Epitoma Rei Militaris Liber II (‘Concerning Military Matters Book II’), LacusCurtius, Available on-line: (accessed 12 October 2021).

Marcus Tullius Cicero, pro Q. Ligario oratio (‘Oration in defence of Quintus Ligarius’), LacusCurtius, Available on-line: (accessed 12 October 2021).

Sextus Pompeius Festus, De verborum significatione libri XX ('Twenty Books on the Meaning of Words'),

Aulus Hirtius, De Bello Alexandrino (‘the Alexandrian War’), LacusCurtius, Available on-line:*.html#16 (accessed 12 October 2021).

Maurus Servius Honoratus, In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii (‘Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil’), LacusCurtius, Available on-line: (accessed 14 October 2021).

Vaguely Historical Costume

We think it is great for children to dress up but many of the products for sale are, to the trained eye, rather dubious. What follows is a critique of such costumes highlighting the common, repetitive oddities. Clearly, this should not to be taken too seriously. Rather, we hope to draw attention to the mistakes that continue to influence, or have been influenced by, so-called historical costumes seen on television and in film.

A quick search for children’s Greek or Roman costume on well-known on-line marketplaces will produce a variety of quite similar results for both boys and girls. Looking at the search results and one might be tempted to conclude that the different manufacturers or suppliers have blindly copied a competitor’s dodgy attempt at making a costume. The descriptive tags used for marketing these products, however, have little to commend them and are quite misleading. Here, then, are a few examples highlighting the faux pas.

For the Boys
  Described as a ‘Boys Toga Costume’ it is very definitely not a toga. It is, however, one of the better products we have seen for sale, albeit with some caveats [1]:
  • The footwear shown (which, incidentally, is not included) does have (very) loose parallels with known imagery and would be significantly better than wearing modern sandals.
  • The belt is a needlessly long ‘gold rope’ but this could easily be shortened.
  • The tunic is ‘100% polyester’ but for a costume retailing for about £20 this can be forgiven. The shape and styling are quite good. The excess length could be easily drawn up through the belt and bloused over since boys in ancient Greece or Rome typically wore their tunics with a hemline above the knee.
  • The sash, which is ‘sewn to the shoulder with a gold ring accent’, is a total nonsense. We recommend getting rid of this trip hazard.
In summary, this particular product is a good basis for an ancient Greek ‘khiton’ or Roman ‘tunica’. As said before, although often confused and misidentified as a Roman ‘toga‘, such tunics are very definitely different garments. But if you wanted to add a toga, or the less well-known Greek equivalent, the ‘himation’, to your costume, then what would this look like?

The himation (ancient Greek: ἱμάτιον / hə-MAT-ee-un) was a large rectangular piece of woollen cloth worn by ancient Greek men and women from the Archaic through the Hellenistic periods (c. 750 BC to 30 BC). It was typically worn over a man’s khiton or woman’s ‘peplos’ (see below) and thus played both the role of a cloak or shawl. Many vase paintings depict women wearing a himation as a veil covering their faces. The himation was sometimes worn alone without a khiton underneath. In this manner it served both as a khiton and as a cloak being then called an ‘akhiton’.

The himation was markedly less voluminous than the Roman toga, which was a very specific garment worn only by citizens. The toga was invariably made of wool cloth of varying sizes up to six metres (20 inches) in length. It was generally worn over a tunic with draped folds over the left shoulder and the excess material wrapped round the body in a swag. After the 2nd-century BC, the toga was worn almost exclusively by men and, as previously mentioned, only by Roman citizens.

For the Girls
  Searching for an appropriate costume for girls we discovered the ‘Grecian Goddess Costume’ (shown right). As for the boy’s tunic, we think this is one of the better offerings currently for sale, but it too comes with a few caveats:
  • Firstly, what is with the diaphanous strip of material? It serves no purpose, has no historical provenance, will probably get tangled and, as is so often the case in school, will most likely be discarded by the child. It is best gotten rid of.
  • The criss-crossing ‘gold’ belt is not a separate item but integral to the garment. Belts were, however, both functional in holding the dress closed about the body and decorative. Where we have surviving depictions of this cross-belted style, on statues for example, it seems the belt was crossed over the chest and tied at the waist. In this instance the belt is purely decorative, but it looks the part.
  • The dress is again ‘100% polyester’ but, as before, what should one expect for a costume retailing for less than £10. The shape and styling are surprisingly quite good and imitate the ankle length peplos (Greek: πέπλος) worn by respectable ancient Greek and Roman women from circa 500 BC, during the late Archaic and Classical period, onward.
Essentially, a peplos was a long, rectangular cloth draped about the body and left open on one side. The top edge was folded down about halfway, so that the folded-down portion gave the appearance of a second piece of clothing. The garment was then belted about the waist and the folded top edge pinned at the shoulders. In our opinion, the ‘Grecian Goddess Costume’ imitates that styling rather well.

Summary  As with most things you only get what you are prepared to pay for. Most of the children’s costumes for sale are cheap and cheerful but do not let that put you off. Some are slightly more ‘historically’ correct than others and we would recommend choosing these over the more dubious, clichéd offerings. Should you be inspired to make your own, however, then perhaps our guide to creating a simple ancient Greek or Roman costume is available here.


1. The quoted text is taken from the retailer’s description.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Dispelling Some Myths: Chinese Ironworking

Hosted by the actor Danny Trejo, the US television series 'Man at Arms: Art of War', brought together martial arts experts and master blacksmiths to recreate some of the most popular weapons from movies, television shows and video games. The show is clearly intended to be entertaining, hence the graphic demonstrations of the featured weapons’ capabilities. Moreover, the addition of master blacksmiths to recreate the weapons provided useful insights into how they might have been forged. All good. Yet, at its heart this is supposed to be a factual documentary so, as keen historians, we are always alert to any claims made that seem, well, misleading.

Bold assertions
  Episode One of Season One, titled 'The Weapons of Kung Fu', focused on two ancient Chinese weapons, namely the 'Wind and Fire Blade' and the ji, a polearm. In the introductory sequence, in the so-called 'War Room', publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine, Gene Cheng, stated: 'China was way ahead of the rest of the world when it came to metallurgy.'

Blacksmith Kerry Stagmer, of Baltimore Knife and Sword, agreed: 'They were certainly mass-producing weapons in iron far ahead of anybody else. When so many other countries were struggling with just figuring out how to make it [iron] in the first place they were mass-producing. They were mass-producing weapons for armies with thousands of people in it. A big advancement over bronze.'

These are bold claims that, at best, are not entirely the truth. From the moment China's economic 'Open Door Policy' shifted to encouraging and supporting foreign trade and investment, starting on its path to becoming 'The World's Factory', access to and the study of Chinese history by western academics was notably improved. Consequently, documentary makers had a wealth of exciting new material to explore and broadcast to audiences in the West. This resulted in several factual TV documentaries revealing ancient Chinese technology in which it was enthusiastically asserted that China was far more advanced than the rest of the world. Understandably, given the premise of these documentaries, the focus on Chinese technological 'firsts' effectively ignored contemporary or competing innovations outside China to create a somewhat biased view. Such unbalanced and misleading claims are so frustrating, especially when one actually compares Chinese and European historical achievements. So, when it comes to the history of iron working, were the Chinese as advanced as the 'Man at Arms: Art of War' show implied?

The Iron Age
  In a subsequent piece to camera Cheng stated: 'China actually has the oldest metallurgy. They moved out of the Bronze Age into the Iron Age around about the Spring and Autumn period, some 3,500 years ago.' Not quite. The Spring and Autumn period [1], which roughly corresponds to the first half of the Eastern Zhou period, was from approximately 771 BC to 476 BC. At its earliest, therefore, it was about 2,800 years ago. Cheng effectively introduced a not unsubstantial error of nearly 700 years; still '3,500 years ago' does sound more impressive.

Leaving the pedantry aside, the Iron Age is conventionally defined by the widespread replacement of bronze weapons and tools with those of iron and steel [2]. That transition happened at different times in different places, as the technology spread. Mesopotamia was fully into the Iron Age by 900 BC. Although Egypt produced iron artefacts, bronze remained dominant until its conquest by Assyria in 663 BC. The Iron Age began in India about 1200 BC, in Central Europe about 600 BC and 300 years later in China (ca. 300 BC) [3]. This means China was somewhat behind in adopting iron, and it is still debated whether the technology of bloomery-based ironworking ever spread from the Middle East to China. Rather, in an example of 'simultaneous invention' [4], it is just possible that Chinese ironworking developed independently.

Cast iron  Returning to the show, Cheng then stated: 'The Chinese were the first to create cast iron. Now cast iron is a stepping-stone to steel, and the Han Dynasty, which is about the time of Christ, developed massive blast furnaces that could raise the temperature of cast iron hot enough to start creating steel. And that was centuries before any other culture developed it.' Once more Cheng’s claims are confusing both on the timing of these developments and his implication that the advance from cast iron to steel was a simple step achieved in a short period. The history of Chinese metallurgy is neither simple nor as unique and ground-breaking as the show would have us believe.

The earliest cast iron artefacts, dating to 5th-century BC, were discovered by archaeologists in what is now modern Luhe County, Jiangsu in China. Compare that date with the introduction of iron working to Greece in the 10th-century BC (see InfoBox right) and one begins to see that Cheng’s claim that China’s iron industry was 'centuries [ahead] of any other culture' does not stand up to scrutiny. That said, around 500 BC metalworkers in the southern state of Wu achieved a temperature of up to 1130 °C which is hot enough to use a hearth as a blast furnace. At this temperature, iron combines with 4.3% carbon, melts and in its liquid state it can be cast in moulds. This method of manufacturing objects is far less laborious than individually forging each piece of iron from a bloom as would have been the case in Iron Age Europe.

According to Wagner (1993) cast iron was subsequently used in ancient China for warfare, agriculture and architecture [5]. The claim regarding its use in warfare is surprising, and debatable, since cast iron is rather brittle and unsuitable for striking implements. It is far more likely, therefore, that cast iron was largely employed for non-military uses, for example by Chinese farmers.

If iron ores are heated with carbon to between 1150°C and 1200°C, a molten alloy of about 96.5% iron and 3.5% carbon is formed. This product is strong, can be cast into intricate shapes, but is too brittle to be worked. If, however, cast iron is heated in air for several days it is decarburized to remove most of the carbon to become wrought iron or a form of steel. The process is time and resource (fuel) consuming so the vast majority of Chinese iron manufacture, from the late Zhou Dynasty [9] onward, was of cast iron [5].

Toward the end of the Zhou Dynasty iron working methods spread northward. By 300 BC, about 150 years after the La Tène culture first appeared in Europe, iron became the material of choice throughout China for most tools and weapons. A mass grave in Hebei province, for example, dated to the early 3rd-century BC, contains several soldiers buried with their weapons and other equipment. The artefacts recovered from this grave are variously made of wrought iron, cast iron, malleable cast iron, and quench-hardened steel, with only a few, probably ornamental, bronze weapons.

Having been rather dismissive of the show’s claims it is worth noting that Cheng was correct when he said 'massive blast furnaces' were developed during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220). The government of the period established ironworking as a state monopoly and built a series of large blast furnaces in Henan province, each capable of producing several tons of iron per day. By this time, the 1st-century BC, Chinese metallurgists had discovered how to refine molten pig iron. By stirring it in the open air until decarburized it could be hammered to produce 'wrought' iron, or an early form of steel [10]. In modern Mandarin-Chinese, this process is now called chao, literally 'stir-frying', while pig iron is known, in translation, as 'raw iron' and wrought iron is known as 'cooked iron'.

Contrary to the assertions of this episode of 'Man at Arms: Art of War', one final example may be valuable. According to Needham (1986), the production methods of creating a form of high-carbon steel known as Wootz was an idea imported from India to China by merchants no earlier than the 5th-century AD [11]. So, the Chinese were no more innovative in iron making than many other cultures across the globe. This is not to dismiss China's ironworking methods, innovations or practical applications, but merely a reminder to place the country's achievements in a wider, world context.


1. The period's name derives from the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu between 722 and 479 BC, which tradition associates with Confucius (551 - 479 BC).
2. Williams, D., (1867), "The Iron Age", Iron Age [weekly journal], New York.
3. Tylecote, R.F., (1992), A History of Metallurgy, Second Edition, Maney Publishing [for the Institute of Materials], London.
4. The concept of 'simultaneous invention' (more popularly known as 'multiple discovery') is the hypothesis that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors. As an example, stepped pyramids have been built by ancient peoples in South America, Egypt and Asia. It is probably safe to say that these people never met being separated by time and distance. What they share, however, is the ability to come up with similar solutions to similar problems independently (and all without 'Alien' involvement).
5. Wagner, D.B., (1993), Iron and Steel in Ancient China, BRILL, p. 408.
6. Riederer, J., & Wartke, R-B., (2009), "Iron", Brill's New Pauly: Cancik, H., Schneider, H. (eds.).
7. “Noric steel” is named for its place of origin, namely Noricum, an Iron Age kingdom located in modern Austria and Slovenia.
8. Craddock, P.T., (2008), "Mining and Metallurgy", in: Oleson, J.P. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, Oxford University Press.
9. The Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC to 256 BC) followed the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC) and preceded the Qin Dynasty (221 BC to 206 BC). It lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history (790 years).
10. Needham, J., (1986), Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 3, pp. 197, 277 and 563.
11. Needham, J., (1986), Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 1, p. 282.