Monday, September 02, 2019

Bosworth: Food Fit For A King

Tastes Of History was delighted to be part of the Bosworth Mediaeval Festival this year at the brilliant Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre.  For those unfamiliar with the history, the Battle of Bosworth Field (or Battle of Bosworth) was the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses.  Otherwise known as the "Cousins' War", this was the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York that extended across England in the latter half of the 15th century.  The Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on August 22nd, 1485 and resulted in the death of King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.  Won by the Lancastrian forces of Henry Tudor (Henry VII, father of the future King Henry VIII) the battle marks a pivotal transition in British history from the Late Mediaeval Period to the Early Modern Period.

Our brief was to produce period recipes for visitors to sample at the Festival, which given such a specific date was a challenge to say the least.  Nevertheless we set about recreating dishes that we hoped would not have been out of place on such a historic day.

All did not start well.  Persistent rain had turned the field into a quagmire.  So much so that, after several vehicles had been bogged in, movement about the site on the Friday afternoon was sensibly restricted.  Re-enactors were directed to camp on Ambion Hill rather than risk getting stuck in the mud of the lower-lying period campsite.  Even so, several hardy souls are highly commended for hand carrying their gear and equipment onto site.  Hussah!

Regardless of the "glorious" British summer, we pitched out tent and set about dressing our mediaeval kitchen in preparation for the weekend.

Saturday dawned bright and, most importantly, dry.  That said, the main arena was still too soft for horses to be involved in a recreation of the Battle, and jousting by Destrier was understandably cancelled.  No one wished a horse or rider to be injured.  Despite these set backs a full programme of displays, demonstrations and lectures was delivered to a very appreciative audience.

For our part, we prepared the following recipes for visitors to sample; posted here should you wish to recreate them:




Of the recipes shown above, the Ox Tongue, Braised Heart and Tripe dishes were created by Tastes Of History's chef, Jill, and thus are not taken from a historical source per se.  They do, however, use ingredients known to mediaeval cooks, which are combined in a way that would be familiar to diners of the period.  Most visitors to the Bosworth Mediaeval Festival were pleasantly surprised by the taste and texture of those cuts of meat not typically found in their local supermarket.  Unsurprisingly, sampling our meaty Farts went down very well, appealing to a very British sense of humour.  Titter yee not..!




Saturday, August 10, 2019

Last Supper in Pompeii


Located in sunny southern Italy, the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was perfectly positioned between lush vineyards and fertile plains to one side and the bountiful waters of the Bay of Naples to the other.  “Last Supper in Pompeii”, a major exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, tells the story of the city's love affair with food and wine.

When the ash from Mount Vesuvius began raining down on Pompeii in October AD 79, the townspeople were engaged in typical day to day activities: producing, buying and selling food and, most importantly, eating and drinking.  This remarkable exhibition provides an extraordinary insight into their everyday lives.

As is so typical of the UK media, the newspaper coverage of the exhibition’s opening made much of Romans eating dormice.  Given that Tastes Of History has spent two decades trying to correct this fallacy, we were keen to see the exhibition’s approach first-hand.

There are certainly surviving recipes for Edible, or Fat, Dormice (Glis Glis), so it can be argued that Romans did eat them - well, wealthy Romans might have done - as a culinary delicacy.  From the evidence available, however, dormice were not widely eaten by ordinary Romans, who simply could not afford such expensive luxuries.  Moreover, while there is a native species of small dormouse in Britain, the edible one was certainly not and the evidence for the latter’s introduction to these shores by the Romans is sadly lacking.  As for Romano-Britons eating them, there is even less proof!

Edible Dormice are actually more like squirrels, being silver grey in colour, with white or yellow undersides. They have large round ears, black areas around small eyes and long bushy tails.  Typical examples are between 14 to 19 cm long, with a tail a further 11 to 13 cm long.  They were farmed and eaten (possibly as a snack), even though they were expensive to breed and raise. The latter was usually achieved in large pits or, in less spacious urban surroundings, in terracotta containers known as gliraria, something akin to hamster cages. The “Last Supper in Pompeii” exhibition has a wonderful example on show, compete with (ahem) a “dormouse”. Peppered with breathing holes, an edible dormouse would have been confined in such jars to simply eat, drink and sleep. With little exercise the dormouse would be fattened over a number of weeks until it was of sufficient size for the pot.

Being cooks we were very interested in the food preparation and kitchenalia elements of the exhibition. We were fascinated to discover that a rather unusual looking pan, a reproduction of which we possess, is described as cake baking tray. Suitably inspired, we shall experiment with our version and see how well it (albeit a reproduction) performs.

There was only one niggle. In the caption describing a series of serving platters, it is suggested that the visible cut marks might have been caused when someone cut a pizza too forcefully. Yet, pizza, as we understand it, was unknown in the Roman world. The biggest single problem is that most pizza dough bases are covered with a tomato-based sauce and tomatoes were not introduced to Europe until the late 15th or early 16th centuries. The species originated in the South American Andes and its use as a food began in Mexico, spreading throughout the world following the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Moreover, the term pizza was first recorded in the 10th century in a Latin manuscript from the Southern Italian town of Gaeta in Lazio, on the border with Campania, while modern pizza was invented in Naples. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that any resident of Pompeii was eating pizza in the 1st century AD.


Notwithstanding this one tiny error, the “Last Supper in Pompeii” is packed with over 400 rare objects, including fine masterpieces of Roman art, ranging from the luxury furnishings of Roman dining rooms to the carbonised food that was on the table when the volcano erupted. The displays are supported with detailed, easy to read and digest, information panels, and an accompanying audio guide is available for both domestic and overseas visitors. We spent a good hour discovering the many wonderful objects on display.

While exploring this exhibition cannot replace a trip to Pompeii itself, it is a superbly informative alternative. “Last Supper in Pompeii” is running now until January 12th, 2020. Tickets can be purchased on arrival, but a timed ticket system is in operation. It is highly recommended, therefore, to book ahead to ensure you get the time slot of your choice. Full price adult tickets are £12.25 each although concessions are available. To book your tickets, click on this link or visit the Ashmolean Museum website.










Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dionysios' Polybolos

The design of Dionysios of Alexandria’s “Polybolos” is somewhat unique in the annals of ancient artillery. The very name “Polybolos” or “multi-shooter” implies this weapon, most likely a torsion bolt-shooter, had some form of repeating action. As described by Philon of Byzantium in his work “Belopoietica”, it was an automatic repeating straight-spring catapult that could launch arrows in succession. It employed “a double-chain drive, a cam mechanism translating linear into rotary motion, and automatic systems for feeding the bolts and engaging and releasing the trigger.”[1]

Armed with Philon’s description, a working Polybolos was reconstructed by Alan Wilkins, FSA. It has a rotating roller with two slots (one lengthwise and one helical) and a wooden case that held the missiles. On both sides of the case it had two pairs of pentagonal sprockets (gears) connected by a wooden chain. A pin on each chain was connected at the same point with the slider of the catapult.

With the forward rotation of handspikes on a windlass, which is connected to the rear sprockets, the slider moves automatically forwards, whereupon a pin attached to the slider engages and follows the helical cam groove of the roller above. The roller rotates clockwise until the lengthwise slot is aligned with the corresponding opening of the bolt case, or magazine, at which point gravity feeds a bolt into the longitudinal groove. As the slider reaches the extent of its forward motion, the bow-string is fed beneath the claw-like fingers of the trigger. Another pin engages the trigger release lever locking the claw over the bow-string.
Rotating the windlass in the opposite direction reverses the direction of the chain drive to pull the slider rearward and, in so doing, rotates the roller anticlockwise. When the longitudinal slot is aligned with the groove in the slider an arrow is gravity fed onto the latter. The slider continues rearward until a fixed pin engages the protruding lever of the trigger mechanism freeing the claw to pivot upward and release the bow-string. At this point the twisted skeins of sinew-rope propel the two bow arms forward dragging the bow-string along the slider to discharge the bolt. The continuous backward and forward rotation of the windlass in this way enables an operator to launch a succession of bolts relatively swiftly.

The chain drive mechanism produces an impressive rate of fire when compared with a reproduction of a standard three-span Vitruvian catapulta. Testing by members of The Roman Military Research Society (THE RMRS) revealed that Wilkins’ Polybolos could shoot six bolts in the time taken to discharge two using the Vitruvian machine and a two-man crew. With this impressive rate of fire there must have been a very sound reason for the Polybolos not continuing in service after the third century BC.

Why, then, was the Polybolos unsuccessful? The main problem seems to be that it did not offer a huge technological leap forward in firepower. While one man can singlehandedly operate the Polybolos, the semi-automated loading and firing process results in the string being drawn at essentially the same rate as other non-automated machines. Allowing gravity to feed the bolts is therefore not much faster than allowing a loader to place them on the slider against the bow-string. Moreover, the non-automatic system allows the ballistariae more time to aim between shots. Philon makes the claim that the Polybolos was too accurate ("...the missiles will not have a spread..."), but one could argue whether Philon ever saw the machine in action, because there is no way that successive bolts would stay in a tight group except at close ranges[2]. Indeed, well before the maximum range quoted by Philon - "...little more that a stade", approximately 200m - the bolts would have spread out, as they can be seen to do when shooting modern reconstructions of standard, non-automated, bolt-shooters[3]. The Polybolos is clearly a much more complicated machine, with many more constituent parts, than the standard bolt-shooter. It would have been be more costly to construct and maintain. For example, the Wilkins’ reconstruction used about 150 pins to join the links of the two chain drives, and that may be the Achilles heel that led to its not having "found a noteworthy use" by Greek, or indeed Roman armies. Every pin would have to withstand the strain of drawback, and if even one pin snapped - literally “the weakest link” - then the machine would be out of action.

Yet it is intriguing to know whether a full power Polybolos would be a viable weapon. Having seen Alan Wilkins’ reconstructed Polybolos in action several times over the years, and having been lucky enough to actually operate it, it is a complex yet elegant machine whose action is simple to master, but not without its problems.

Firstly, most, if not all, reconstructions of the Polybolos appear severely underpowered. This is not a criticism of the reconstructions themselves, or of their builders, since most of these machines are simply proofs of concept, full size working models if you prefer, aimed at “bringing to life” Dionysios’ invention. Their constructors did not necessarily set out to reproduce a fully tensioned catapult. Rather, most seem intrigued by the concept and determined to investigate how all the complex parts might have fitted and worked together.

Actually, this does make some sense as the mechanism was/is an unknown quantity. The precise materials used in its construction[2] are not known, although we can infer much from the parts  of ancient catapults that do survive. Nor do we know how robust these different parts were or needed to be. We have no idea whether the whole mechanism could have coped with the stresses on the individual components or whether it could have operated efficiently with the amount of potential energy stored in fully tensioned sinew-rope springs. There is the inherent danger of the machine literally destroying itself under tension. Until foolhardy individual builds a full power catapult fitted with the automated loading/release system this will remain a "known unknown".

All of the above, however, has been a preamble to a long running thought experiment. Taking the Wilkins Polybolos as the benchmark, it is fairly obvious from shooting this particular example that the bolts do not fly very far, about six metres rather than the hundreds for an effective war machine. This is hardly surprising since the spring frame is deliberately underpowered for reasons of safety when being demonstrated in public.  The performance is not helped as the Wilkins example, and all similar reconstructions, uses flightless bolts. Once again this is not that surprising. The automated feed system, with its magazine and grooved roller, would appear to rule out the use of fletches, fins or vanes. The absence of fletching will adversely affect the aerodynamic stabilisation of bolts or darts, however.  Thus we are left o question what would happen if flightless bolts were used in a fully tensioned Polybolos? How would they perform? Would they be stable in flight? Would the bolts fly true? How accurate would the catapult prove to be, and what range could be achieved? Answering these questions would certainly demonstrate the viability, or not, of a fully tensioned Polybolos as a weapon.

As stated, two or more fletches or vanes fixed proud to the bolt shaft, much like a standard arrow or crossbow quarrel is configured, would foul the magazine-fed system. So, could the fletches or vanes be incorporated into a bolt to generate the missing in-flight ballistic stabilisation? The inspiration for a possible solution to this problem came from a somewhat unlikely source, namely the “Hale Rocket”.

In 1844, William Hale (1797-1870) patented a new form of rotary rocket that improved on the earlier Congreve rocket design. Hale removed the stabilising guide-stick from Congreve’s design and vectored part of the rocket's thrust through canted exhaust holes to provide rotation of the rocket, which improved its stability in flight[4]. The three curved fins, reminiscent of arrow fletches, were. most notably, in-line with the rocket’s cylindrical body. Could a similar configuration be used for the shaft of a Polybolos bolt? Could the fletching or vanes be fixed to a reduced diameter shaft so as not to foul the feed system, and would this actually work?

The mock-up shown below is based around a bolt recovered during the 1922-1937 excavations in the Roman garrison town and Sassanid siege-works at Dura-Europos in Syria. A tapered wooden shaft may not be the most appropriate for the feed system but the thicker rear section ought to act as a useful counterweight to balance the iron bodkin. Experiments with both tapered and parallel shafts would be necessary to determine the most efficient bolt design. Four fletches or vanes (shown below in black) are proposed for symmetry. The shaft at the point where the fletches/vanes are adhered would need to be of sufficient diameter so that the bow-string connects with the bolt shaft and not the fletches/vanes. The latter circumstance would undoubtedly lead to a potentially dangerous misfire.


An alternative might be taking a standard bolt with an untapered shaft and incorporate the vanes along its axis. The example shown below uses a bolt 46 cm long typically associated with a one-cubit, or two-span, catapult. Three offset vanes have been carved into the shaft such that sufficient mass of material is retained to resist the propelling force of the bowstring acting on the shaft.

The next step will be to produce a number of example bolts and shoot them. Future tests will aim to prove the concept and determine which of the two bolt designs will: (1) feed cleanly from the Polybolos' magazine, (2) engage with the mechanism, (3) shoot safely, and (4) improve in-flight stability.








Notes:
[1] Wilkins, A. (2003), Roman Artillery, Shire Archaeology, Princes Risborough, p. 8.
[2] There is little or no evidence beyond Philon’s description to prove the Polybolos was anything more than an idea. Most likely it was an unrealised one.
[3] As with many automatic weapons systems, the Polybolos does tend to launch multiple bolts consistently at the same point in space. While this does produce a rather desirous “mean point of impact”, it is less than ideal if the intention is to engage and hit multiple targets in rapid succession.
[4] Winter, F.H. (1990), The First Golden Age of Rocketry: Congreve and Hale Rockets of the Nineteenth Century, Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 321.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Dispelling Some Myths: The Game of Quoits


The history of the game of quoits appears, on the face of it, to have an ancient origin. At least that is what you would believe from several website authors who attribute the game's invention to ancient Greece.  Foremost among these is The United States Quoiting Association (USQA.org) whose history of the game may well be "patient zero" upon whom many others have relied.  It certainly seems to be the case for researchers on the BBC's Celebrity Antiques Road Trip.  For example, about 30 minutes into the episode in Series 6 featuring comediennes Ronni Ancona and Jan Ravens, it was stated that quoits "originated in the ancient Greece...[and] was one of the five games of the pentathlon."  Having never come across this fact before, the alarm bells to start ringing.  Quoits in the ancient Greek pentathlon - are you sure?  It just did not seem right.

An initial search found one of the more comprehensive histories of the game on the USQA.org's website.  This particular history seems to be oft repeated source used by other web authors so a closer study of the content was in order.  According to the opening statement: "the origins of the Quoit can be traced back to the very ancient Chakram, a ring-shaped metal blade used as a weapon of war, and later in history, to the discus throw of the ancient Greek Olympics."

Modern ring quoits as used in the Northern English game, and shown in the image above, do look at lot like the Indian chakram.  According to the Wikipedia entry, however, the earliest references to the chakram come from the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana where the Sudarshana Chakra is the weapon of the god Vishnu.  The Mahābhārata is an epic legendary narrative of the Kurukṣetra War and the fates of ancient India’s Kaurava and Pāṇḍava princes.  The oldest preserved parts of the text are thought to be not much older than around 400 BC, though the oral origins of the epic probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BC[1].

Other than a general likeness - both chakram and quoit are disc-shaped, and thrown - there is little evidence to suggest that the latter evolved from the former.  So, if an Indian origin is unlikely, then what about ancient Greece?

USQA.org goes on to state: "The Discus was also referred to as a Quoit in many Greek writings and mythological tales.  In its original form it was a flat, tapered disk made of stone, iron, or bronze."

It is doubtful that the term “quoit” was ever used by ancient authors as the ancient Greek word δίσκος (discus) rather does the trick.  The confusion may be a more modern one stemming from the nouns "quoit" and "discus" being used synonymously today to refer to a flat disc that is thrown.  USQA.org is correct, however, to describe the original ancient Greek discus being of stone, while later examples were made in bronze (pictured left), lead or iron.  Excavated examples of discusses have diameters ranging between 17 cm and 35 cm and weights of 1.3 kg to 6.6 kg.  The average appears to be 2.5 kg, which is ½ kg above the minimum weight of a modern discus.  The weight differences are easily explained as each city-state (poleis) had his own standard, while the discusses for boys were understandably lighter than those for adults.  Three official, standard weight, discusses were kept in the Sikyonian treasury[2] for use at the Olympic games supposedly to make competition fairer.

USQA's history continues by stating: "The Discus was by far the most popular event of the Olympic games, so many spectators who watched the athletes perform the Discus throw in competition eagerly sought to imitate the sport at home."

Once again, no.  The discus throw was not a separate event as it is in today’s modern Olympics.  Instead it was part of the ancient Olympic pentathlon (Greek: πένταθλον) comprising five (pente-) competitions (athlon) contested over one day.  Significantly, the first pentathlon was held at the 18th ancient Olympiad around 708 BC, which clearly pre-dates any written reference to the chakram’s origin (see above).  By the 77th ancient Olympiad, the pentathlon was generally ordered into three sections: the stadion foot race, the triagmos of the long jump, javelin throw and discus throw, concluding with wrestling.

So, rather than "later in history", the discus throw clearly has much earlier roots.  Moreover, the only way the discus throw could be "the most popular event of the Olympic games" is if the pentathlon was by far the most popular competition, which it seems it was not.  Apparently pentathletes were considered inferior to those athletes who specialized in a certain event.  As to popularity, the pankration, introduced in the 33rd Olympiad (648 BC), was one of the most popular events: Pindar wrote eight odes praising victors of the pankration[3].  While horse racing and chariot racing were the most prestigious competitions in the games.  It is unlikely, then, that ancient Greeks from all walks of life "eagerly sought to imitate the sport at home".

Yet, if the discus throw is the ancestor of quoits, then there was clearly a significant rule change.  The ancient Greek competition, for example, required the pentathletes to throw a solid discus five times.  The winner was whoever threw the furthest distance.  According to USQA.org: "At some undocumented point in history, stakes in the ground were added to change the game from one of distance to one of accuracy."

Put simply, foregoing distance to ring a peg (or pin) means a solid discus simply cannot be used and, more importantly, points to the discus throw and the game of quoits having clearly different aims.  It is not unreasonable to say that they are clearly two different sports, albeit superficially connected by a throwing element.

Leaving the ancient Greeks, USQA.org then asserts the Romans role in spreading the game of quoits far and wide: "During the period of the Roman conquest of Europe, the Romans shod their warhorses with circular rings of iron weighing about 4 pounds apiece.  These "shoes" were not nailed to the horses' hooves but rather were strapped to them with leather thongs."


As far as is known the Romans did not shoe their horses with "rings of iron" but used the “hipposandal” (Latin: soleae ferreae) instead.  Surviving examples look like an oval-shaped cup of thick metal that enclosed and protected the hoof.  As USQA.org states, this early form of horseshoe was fastened to the hoof by leather laces tied through metallic rings and around a prominent hook (as shown above).  The hipposandal was clearly not a circular ring so this is another example of a non sequitur (Latin: "it does not follow") in USQA.org’s history.  It is equally doubtful that what the Romans did use weighed "4 pounds apiece".  Conveniently, however, this is the weight of a modern quoit as prescribed for the traditional American game - a coincidence surely?

Returning to the history: "The rings were a fair imitation of a Discus or Quoit, so the soldiers began tossing the worn-out shoes in their leisure time.  When horseshoes later developed into the open U-shape familiar now, the soldiers would either bend them into crude rings or just pitch them as they were.  Thus, Horseshoes became the economical substitute for soldiers and commoners who did not have access to the expensive, forged sets of Quoits."

Although it could be argued there is some resemblance between a hipposandal and a discus - flat metal discs that Roman soldiers might have thrown for distance - hipposandals were clearly not "a fair [or otherwise] imitation" of a ring-shaped quoit.  The familiar nailed, u-shaped, iron horseshoe first appeared in the archaeological record in Europe in about the 5th century AD when a horseshoe, complete with nails, was found in the tomb of the Frankish King Childeric I at Tournai, Belgium[4].  This was around the time of the waning and eventual collapse of Roman administration in Europe.  In these turbulent times it is unlikely that soldiers, Roman or otherwise, were bending iron horseshoes "into crude rings" to play quoits.

Regardless, "The Roman conquest brought Quoits to Britain, and by the 1300’s the game became a hugely popular pastime there, especially among English Noblemen.  British settlers eventually brought Quoits to America in the late 1600's, where it flourished throughout the Colonies."  Frustratingly there is little or no evidence for the game of quoits being brought to Britain during the period of Roman rule, or of the game being played subsequently.  That is until AD 1388 when there is some vague "historical evidence of attempts to ban Quoits from pubs and taverns due to its disreputable character"[5].  It is not until the 19th century that the game became increasingly popular and was documented in any detailed way.  The official rules, for example, first appeared in the April 1881 edition of The Field having been defined by a body formed from pubs in Northern England.  If true, then quite how the game was taken to the USA in the 17th century remains somewhat of a mystery, but not impossible.

It seems readily apparent that the game of quoits has a well-established yet unsubstantiated, almost mythical, history in popular culture.  To be fair to USQA.org, its published history has been singled out and heavily critiqued, but its authors are not alone in fuelling the game's mythical roots.  Clearly drawing on each other, many other, diverse websites perpetuate the same ideas.  Few challenge the game’s asserted Greek ancestry, many are happy to conflate the ancient discus with the modern quoit, and most blindly accept that the Romans spread the game across their Empire and, in time, much further afield.  Where doubts are expressed, those authors simply opt for a later unspecified mediaeval European origin.  Whatever the truth, the "ancient" history of quoits ought to be treated with caution, perhaps even as just a myth to be dispelled.

References:
[1] Brockington, J. (1998), The Sanskrit Epics, Leiden, p.26.
[2] ancientolympics.arts.kuleuven.be/eng/TC004EN.html
[3] Gardiner, E. N. (1910), "Greek athletic sports and festivals", Macmillan London.
[4] "Horseshoe", (2005), Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed. Vol. 20, 651-51.
[5] http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/quoits.htm, recovered March 20th, 2019.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Collop Monday

In an earlier post (Daily Meals in Tudor England) mention was made of "Collop Monday", the day before Shrove Tuesday, in connection with the origins of breakfast.  More recently we produced "Scotch Collops" for English Heritage's "Elizabethan Pageant" at Kenilworth Castle.  With little idea of what the term "collop" meant, some quick web-based research revealed a surprising answer.

Like Easter, Collop Monday is evidently another moveable date in the Christian calendar but regardless on what date it actually falls, it is always the Monday before Shrove Tuesday (pancake day in Britain).  Precisely when Collop Monday came into being is not clear but it was most likely established in the Mediaeval period.

Also known as Shrove Monday, traditionally this was the last day to cook and eat meat before the prohibitions of Lent.  Without refrigeration, it is likely that the only meat available at that time of year would have been smoked or salted - usually bacon or ham.  In fact, in Tudor England the name collops referred specifically to thick slices of bacon.

It soon became the custom that the bacon would be fried and served with eggs, usually for breakfast, on Collop Monday.  In one way this could be considered the forerunner of today's full English Breakfast.  Nevertheless, the leftover bacon fat would be used the following day, Shrove Tuesday, to make pancakes.

The traditional Scottish dish known as "Scotch Collops" uses either mince or thin slices of either beef, lamb or venison.  The meat is combined with onion, salt, pepper and suet, then stewed, baked or roasted with optional flavourings according to the meat used.  Today Scotch Collops are often served garnished with thin toast and mashed potato.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Wæs hæl! Drinc hæl!

Although synonymous with Christmas, the tradition of wassailing, typically celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously January 5th or 6th), has largely been displaced by carolling.  Both versions share the practice of people going door-to-door and singing, but wassailing also involves offering a drink from the "wassail bowl" in exchange for gifts.

There is another version of wassailing, however, with ancient roots: the custom of visiting orchards in the cider-producing regions of England (chiefly the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire).  This form of wassailing involves incantation and singing, the purpose being to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit the following Autumn.

Whichever version you favour, the word "wassail" seems to be a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale" or, if you prefer, “be in good health”.  In the twelfth century, Danish-speakers inhabiting the Danelaw turned Waes hael, and the reply Drinc hæl, into a drinking formula, a toast widely adopted by the rest of England's population.

So, if over this festive season you wish to go a-wassailing you might consider this Victorian recipe for...

The non-alcoholic nature of this recipe can be upgraded by replacing the apple juice with scrumpy or something similar.




Monday, December 24, 2018

From the Supply Reserve Depot

Success! For some time now, I have been searching for a stoneware jar marked with the letters “SRD” to complement Tastes Of History’s Great War themed history displays.  While many stoneware jars have been found, none had the iconic “SRD” lettering.  Just before Christmas Jill and I visited Victoria Mill Antiques Centre in Congleton, a favourite haunt f\of ours or seeking out period props and kitchenalia.  If I am honest, we went there for lunch as chef Ian Woodhouse serves quite superb food in the Loft Café, but it never hurts to have a nose around.  Within minutes, three stoneware jars were spotted at the back of a shelf but, so used to finding such things, I almost ignored them.  That is until I noticed what looked like black marks on one of the jars facing the wall.  Could it be?  The jar pictured is now part of our kit, but why all the fuss and what do those letters mean?

First World War, and later, period British Army stoneware jars were typically marked with the letters “SRD” which, according to the Imperial War Museum (IWM), stood for “Supply Reserve Depot”.  As usual various internet commentators continue to cast doubt on this meaning, but it is safe to say that the alternatives (see InfoBox), which are all too often quoted, are simply incorrect.

Other, more ironic, interpretations of the initials including: “Seldom Reaches Destination”, “Service Rum Diluted” and “Soon Runs Dry” are simply wonderful examples of soldiers' black humour.  If there remains any doubt on the meaning of “SRD”, then consider that the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War.  Such a pedigree gives the IWM a certain authority on such matters and thus “Supply Reserve Depot” it is.

That containers and crates for other foodstuffs and drinks/liquids were marked “SRD” is completely understandable and consistent with them being distributed to the front through the Army’s logistical supply system.  Indeed, the iconic "SRD" jars, which are usually assumed to have contained only rum, may have held many different liquids or substances.  These stoneware jars were simply the common storage container of the day.  Variations in the shape and glaze colours of surviving examples is most likely the result of mass production by several different potteries.

The association with rum remains valid, however.  Except for Muslim personnel, British and Commonwealth soldiers were given a daily rum ration of 1/16th of a pint, or a quarter-gill, per man per day.  Given such a small amount, frontline soldiers would find it difficult to get intoxicated on the standard issue ration alone so stories of troops going into battle in an alcoholic stupor are most likely unfounded.  That said, some sources mention the run ration being doled out more frequently, especially when attacks were imminent or if heavy casualties increased the availability of rum.  Typically, however, the ration was issued once per morning at the daily “stand-to” when, just before dawn, soldiers would man their forward trench positions in preparation to counter an enemy attack.