Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Victorian Christmas

In another first for Tastes Of History, we travelled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to support English Heritage's "Victorian Christmas".  Our aim was to provide a sampling menu of food and drink of the period for visitors to try.  The cooking of mince pies and a warm Wassail Punch added the aromas of Christmas, attracting passers-by to our humble cottage.

For those who do not know, Osborne House is a former royal residence in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought the Osborne estate on the Isle of Wight in 1845. The house, designed by Prince Albert himself, was built between 1845and 1851 in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo. Osborne became a summer home and private rural retreat away from court life. Victoria used Osborne for over 50 years, entertaining foreign royalty and visiting ministers, finding solace there after Albert’s death in 1861. Now in the care of English Heritage, visitors can explore the many rooms still filled with original furniture and works of art, while the planting in the grounds is to Albert’s designs.
Of particular note, The Durbar Room is an exceptional example of high Victorian opulence. By the 1890s, Victoria lived increasingly at Osborne and decided the house needed staterooms so that she could hold court there. The Durbar Room was one of the places added as a result and was one of the few parts of Osborne that was built by Victoria following the death of Prince Albert.

In 2015 the room was re-opened to the public after an extensive refurbishment that had used photographs of how it looked when Victoria was still alive. As guests step through the door, they will see the Durbar Room as she would have seen it - a banqueting hall. Visitors can walk on ornate carpets around a huge dining table set with fine cutlery and crockery to give an idea of the opulent meals held there by Queen Victoria. Moreover they can marvel at the restored plasterwork orginally decorated by Lockwood Kipling, father of author Rudyard Kipling, and Bhai Ram Singh.

For our part, it was a challenge to keep up with the demand for mince pies.  Using only a small portable oven, we were limited to cooking trays of 24 mini mince pies at a time.  Once cooled, however, it was amazing to watch two dozen pies being devoured in as many seconds by visitors.  Their popularity must have been due to Mrs Beeton's Mincemeat recipe:
Our ginger cake seemed popular too, even though its texture is more bread-like than cake. This is largely due to the use of plain flour with a little baking soda rather than self-raising flour  more likely to be used today.  The result is denser ginger bread but even this differs significantly from the biscuit-style ginger bread available in shops and familiar to most people.

Self-raising flour was invented by English baker Henry Jones about 1844, in the first quarter of Victoria's reign.  A year later, Jones applied for and received a British patent on his flour manufacturing process.  He hoped to sell his invention to the Royal Navy to replace the sailors' tradition hard tack with a more appealing freshly baked “soft tack”.  Sadly, bureaucratic inertia foiled his efforts and it took a further ten-years before Jones' self-raising flour was sailing the length and breadth of the British Empire.
For those with an even more sweet tooth, we offered two dishes: an Everton toffee and a Victorian marshmallow.  The latter, having the addition of rose water, created a bit of a stir.  Many visitors were initially confused by the flavour until they realised the rose water connection with Turkish Delight.  Both dishes were, however, sugary treats not for the faint-hearted:
And finally, the aroma of hot mince pies and ginger cake were supplemented by the addition of a Victorian "Wassail Punch", a brief history of which can be found here.  We decided to produce a non-alcoholic version so all, young or old, could sample the flavours of Christmas.  For those wishing for a more merry version (perhaps), the recipe can be upgraded by replacing apple juice with scrumpy or something similar:
From what we understand over 8,000 people visited Osborne House over the weekend.  The passing trade certainly kept us busy, and it was a joy once more to share our food knowledge with interested, and interesting, people.

With that in mind, we hope the recipes above can add an appealing twist to your Christmas festivities this year.  So, from all at Tastes Of History, have a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous and peaceful New Year.  Wassail!

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Reclaiming an Ancient Good Luck Symbol

Mention the word ‘swastika’ or worse draw the image and today you risk causing offence for so many reasons. Though once commonly used over much of the world without stigma, because of its iconic usage in Nazi Germany the symbol remains highly controversial in the Western world. Any discussion on symbology cannot, and must not (lest we condemn ourselves to make the same mistakes), divorce itself from these modern connotations. However, might it be appropriate to return this symbol to its more benign ancestry and through education over time deny its use to ‘extremists’. That’s the aim - now how to navigate the minefield..?

A ‘swastika’ is normally taken to refer to an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, which appears either right-facing or in its mirrored left-facing form. The archaeological evidence for swastika-shaped ornaments dates to as early as the Neolithic period. As an ancient symbol, the swastika occurs mainly in the cultures that reside in modern day India and the surrounding area, sometimes as a geometrical motif (as in the Roman Republic and Empire) and sometimes as a religious symbol. It has long been widely used as a sacred emblem in world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism (see insert), and Mithraism. The major religions, with a total of more than a billion adherents worldwide, make the swastika universally found in both historical and contemporary society

Etymology  The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word svastik meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck.  It is composed of su-, meaning "good, well" and asti, a verbal abstract to the root as "to be".  Svasti thus means "well-being."  The suffix -ka intensifies the verbs meaning or confers the sense of 'beneficial', and svastika might thus be translated literally as "that which is associated with well-being", corresponding to "lucky charm" or "thing that is auspicious."[1]  The Hindu Sanskrit term has been in use in English since 1871, with alternative historical spellings including suastika, swastica and svastica.
Origin Hypotheses  The ubiquity of the swastika symbol is easily explained by it being a very simple shape.  Many basket-weaving societies, for example, have independently arrived at a repeating swastika design using the edges of the reeds in a square basket-weave.  Regardless, the genesis of the swastika symbol is often treated in conjunction with cross symbols in general, such as the "sun wheel" of Bronze Age religion (see opposite).

History  As already alluded to, the earliest consistent use of swastika motifs in the archaeological record is dated to the Neolithic.  The symbol has been found on several pottery sherds from the Khuzestan province of Iran, for example, and as part of the "Vinca script" of Neolithic Europe of the 5th millennium BC.  In the Early Bronze Age, it appears on pottery found in Sintashta, Russia.  Swastika-like symbols also appear in Bronze and Iron Age designs of the northern Caucasus (Koban culture), and Azerbaijan, as well as of Scythians and Sarmatians.  In all these cultures, the swastika symbol does not appear to occupy any marked position or significance, but seems to be just one form of a series of similar symbols of varying complexity.

The swastika symbol also has an ancient history in Europe appearing on artefacts from many pre-Christian European cultures.  The Indo-Aryans, Persians, Hittites, Slavs, “Celts” and Greeks, among others, extensively used it as a decorative symbol.  In more modern times, the swastika experienced resurgence in the Western world following the archaeological work in the late 19th century of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the symbol in the site of ancient Troy.  Following his discovery, and after consulting two leading Sanskrit scholars of the day, Emile Burnouf and Max Müller, Schliemann concluded that the swastika was a specifically Indo-European symbol.  Later discoveries of the motif among the remains of the Hittites and of ancient Iran seemed to confirm this theory and thereafter associated the symbol with the ancient migrations of Proto-Indo-Europeans.  Schliemann also connected it with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and theorised that the swastika was a "significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors", linking Germanic, Greek and Indo-Iranian cultures.[1][2]

By the early 20th century, these discoveries, and the new popularity of the swastika symbol, had led to a widespread desire to ascribe symbolic significance to every example of the motif.  In many European countries, examples of identical shapes in ancient European artefacts and in folk art were interpreted as emblems of good-luck and success linked to the Indo-Iranian meaning.  Schliemann’s work, however, soon became intertwined with the völkisch[3] movements, for which the swastika was a symbol of "Aryan" identity - a concept that became equated by theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg with a Nordic master race originating in northern Europe.  Western use of the symbol, along with the attached religious and cultural meanings, was subverted after its adoption as the emblem of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party).  With its conveniently-geometrical and eye-catching simplicity, the swastika was highly effective for associating Nazism with the Aryans as the historical forefathers of modern Germans and instilling racial pride.  It is worth remembering that many Roman symbols were also co-opted by the Nazis to blatantly associate the ‘Reich’ with ancient Rome and establish its imperial aspirations.  One need only look at the flags (vexillae), eagles (aquilae) and the bound bundle of wooden rods (fasces)[4] on display in parades (e.g. Nuremburg and Munich) and on all government buildings to see the obvious parallels.  Since then, of course, the swastika is almost exclusively associated in much of the West with Nazism, fascism, white
supremacy and racism, the Axis powers in World War II, and the Holocaust.

Today, the version of the swastika shown left remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups.  How sad then that its original use as a ‘lucky charm’ has been so thoroughly corrupted.  Perhaps it is high time that we, as professional historians, teachers or history enthusiasts, begin the process of educating future generations to accept the swastika without prejudice and for what it has always represented.  Time, perhaps, to reclaim this most ancient symbol.  Good Luck!
1.  Schliemann, H. (1875), Troy and its remains, Murray, London, pp. 102, 119-20.
2.  Boxer, S. (2000), "One of the world's great symbols strives for a comeback", The New York Times, July 29.
3.  The German interpretation of the populist movement, with a romantic focus on folklore and the "organic".
4.  During WW2, and ever since, the swastika became deeply stigmatized, yet strangely the fasces did not.

A Brief History of Foods: Turkey at Christmas

There was great excitement during Easter 2019 with the announcement of the first secure dating of a rabbit bone, found in Britain, to the first century AD.  While it has been widely believed that the Romans introduced the wild rabbit to these shores, actual scientific proof had been sadly lacking.  Analysis of a rabbit bone found in Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, however, now shows at least one animal was alive in Britain in the first century AD.  However, the origins of the rabbit in Britain, and its domestication, are not the focus of this post as the media quickly linked the timing of the find to the rabbit's association with Easter.  Reading around this latter subject led to the discovery of thought provoking research on "Celebrating Easter, Christmas and their associated alien fauna"[1].  Should you wish to read the full paper, it can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2018.1515655, but what got my attention was all about Meleagris gallopavo, the Turkey, and its link to Thanksgiving and Christmas.  While not particularly partial to turkey myself, it was surprising how little I knew of the historical connection with the winter celebrations.  Being keen to share knowledge, especially when I've learnt something new, what follows are the pertinent paragraphs extracted and are presented for your information and delectation: 

"The date of the turkey’s first appearance in Europe is unknown, but written documents suggest a 1511-12 introduction to Spain and 1520 in Italy (Crawford 1992; Fothergill 2014).  Their introduction to England is credited to William Strickland[2], who claimed to have bought six turkeys from Native American traders[3] and sold them in Bristol in 1524 or 1526.  Until recently, there were no archaeological finds to support a 1520s introduction, as the earliest closely dated physical remains were from a 1534-50 context at St Alban’s Abbey (Hertfordshire) and almost all other finds have broad date ranges (Poole 2010; Fothergill 2014).  Fothergill (2012) suggests that when turkeys were initially introduced to Europe their status as exotic animals meant they were more likely to be used for display purposes rather than food.

Initially, the turkey’s feast-day popularity in Europe may have been linked to their exotic status, but their growing association with Christmas and, in America, Thanksgiving, was likely facilitated by their natural breeding cycles.  The poults (chicks) are born in the early summer, reach adult size in the autumn and are ideal for slaughter in mid-winter (Fothergill 2012, 44; ‘’ National Wild Turkey Federation).

How turkeys became established as the ultimate Christmas fare is unclear, although Thomas Tusser’s book Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie indicates the association was in place by 1573. Tusser suggests that Christmas feasts should include ‘Beefe, mutton, and porke, shred pies of the best, pig, veale, goose and capon, and turkey well dressed’ (Tusser 1812, 57). It is interesting to note that this first reference to Christmas turkeys in England predates the use of turkeys in American Thanksgiving celebrations by over 150 years. The earliest specific references to turkeys at American Thanksgiving relates to the consumption of eight birds by the colony of Georgia in 1732, and in Savannah in 1733 (Smith 2006, 68). Both cases are associated with new arrivals from England, rather than existing American colonists, suggesting the possibility that including turkeys in celebratory meals was developed in England and only later exported back to the turkey’s continent of origin."

So, the turkey's central role in the American Thanksgiving began as an English tradition, another of which has it that Henry VIII was the first English king to enjoy turkey at Christmas.  Yet, while this tradition is said to have spread rapidly throughout England in the 17th century, goose remained the predominant Christmas roast until the Victorian era.  Turkey's more recent popularity as "traditional" fayre was undoubtedly helped by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843), but it was King Edward VII who reputedly made eating turkey fashionable.

1.  Malene Lauritsen, Richard Allen, Joel M. Alves, Carly Ameen, Tom Fowler, Evan Irving-Pease, Greger Larson, Luke John Murphy, Alan K. Outram, Esther Pilgrim, Philip A. Shaw & Naomi Sykes (2018) Celebrating Easter, Christmas and their associated alien fauna, World Archaeology, 50:2, 285-299, DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2018.1515655
2. According to Richard Marriott, a descendent of William Strickland (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-20672110), there is no real evidence that his ancestor did introduce the turkey to England.  Strickland, however, was keen to promote the story and thus adopted a turkey cock as the family crest.  The drawing of his coat-of-arms, held at the College of Arms in London, is thought to be the first depiction of the bird in Europe.
3. Native Americans hunted wild turkey for its meat as early as AD 1000.  Turkey feathers were used to stabilise arrows and adorn ceremonial dress, and the spurs on the legs of wild tom turkeys were used as projectiles on arrowheads.