Category Archive 'History'
18 Aug 2017

Flying, 1954

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Design is Fine:

KML Royal Super Constellation, cabin interior design by Henry Dreyfuss, from Revue der Reclame, 1954. Netherlands. Source. Pic 2/5: Club Lounge Pic 4: The Flying Chef offers a 7-course champagne dinner.

08 Aug 2017

Jack the Ripper Left a Diary?

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A Victorian diary found in a suburb of Liverpool may have established the identity of history’s most infamous serial killer. Telegraph:

[T]he true identity of Jack the Ripper may have finally been confirmed, after researchers said they had proven the authenticity of a much disputed Victorian diary.

Twenty five years ago ‘Ripperologists’ around the world were stunned by the discovery of a previously unknown memoir, claiming to have been written by Liverpool cotton merchant, James Maybrick.

In the 9,000 word volume, Maybrick confessed to the brutal murders of five women in the East End of London, as well as one prostitute in Manchester.

He signed off the diary: “I give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentleman born. Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper.”

RTWT

29 Jul 2017

Michelangelo’s Grocery List

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Open Culture:

Living in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Italian High Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer Michelangelo… had only to send assistants off to market to bring back what he needed. Though vanishingly few of this prolific creator’s papers survive today, we do happen to have a few of the grocery lists he sent with them, like that which you see above.

John Updike once wrote that “excellence in the great things is built upon excellence in the small,” and the observation holds up ideally when we think about Michelangelo’s numerous great achievements — Pietà, David, The Last Judgment, St. Peter’s Basilica — in comparison to this humble yet striking rundown of ingredients for a meal, of the same basic kind each of us scrawl out regularly. But when Michelangelo scrawled, he scrawled with both a craftsman’s practical precision and an artist’s evocative flair. “Because the servant he was sending to market was illiterate,” writes the Oregonian‘s Steve Duin in a review of a Seattle Art Museum show, “Michelangelo illustrated the shopping lists — a herring, tortelli, two fennel soups, four anchovies and ‘a small quarter of a rough wine’ — with rushed (and all the more exquisite for it) caricatures in pen and ink.” As we can see, the true Renaissance Man didn’t just pursue a variety of interests, but applied his mastery equally to tasks exceptional and mundane. Which, of course, renders the mundane exceptional.

10 Jul 2017

Calculating the Odds at Gettysburg

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Military historians have long debated whether Lee’s decision to attack the Union center on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg with Pickett’s Division ever had any chance of succeeding.

Up at Norwich University in Vermont, Michael J. Armstrong (with Steve Sondergen) was the most recent to have a try at settling the dispute.

We used computer software to build a mathematical model of the charge. The model estimated the casualties and survivors on each side, given their starting strengths.

We used data from the actual conflict to calibrate the model’s equations. This ensured they initially recreated the historical results. We then adjusted the equations to represent changes in the charge, to see how those affected the outcome. This allowed us to experiment mathematically with several different alternatives.

The first factor we examined was the Confederate retreat. About half the charging infantry had become casualties before the rest pulled back. Should they have kept fighting instead? If they had, our model calculated that they all would have become casualties too. By contrast, the defending Union soldiers would have suffered only slightly higher losses. The charge simply didn’t include enough Confederate soldiers to win. They were wise to retreat when they did.

We next evaluated how many soldiers the Confederate charge would have needed to succeed. Lee put nine infantry brigades, more than 10,000 men, in the charge. He kept five more brigades back in reserve. If he had put most of those reserves into the charge, our model estimated it would have captured the Union position. But then Lee would have had insufficient fresh troops left to take advantage of that success.
Ammunition ran out

We also looked at the Confederate artillery barrage. Contrary to plans, their cannons ran short of ammunition due to a mix-up with their supply wagons. If their generals had better coordinated those supplies, the cannons could have fired twice as much. Our model calculated that this improved barrage would have been like adding one more infantry brigade to the charge. That is, the supply mix-up hurt the Confederate attack, but was not decisive by itself.

Finally, we considered the Union Army. After the battle, critics complained that Meade had focused too much on preparing his defences. This made it harder to launch a counter-attack later. However, our model estimated that if he had put even one less infantry brigade in his defensive line, the Confederate charge probably would have succeeded. This suggests Meade was correct to emphasize his defense.

Pickett’s Charge was not the only controversial part of Gettysburg. Two days earlier, Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell decided against attacking Union soldiers on Culp’s Hill. He instead waited for his infantry and artillery reinforcements. By the time they arrived, however, it was too late to attack the hill.
Was Ewell’s Gettysburg decision actually wise?

Ewell was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for missing that opportunity. Capturing the hill would have given the Confederates a much stronger position on the battlefield. However, a failed attack could have crippled Ewell’s units. Either result could have altered the rest of the battle.

A study at the U.S. Military Academy used a more complex computer simulation to estimate the outcome if Ewell had attacked. The simulation indicated that an assault using only his existing infantry would have failed with heavy casualties. By contrast, an assault that also included his later-arriving artillery would have succeeded. Thus, Ewell made a wise decision for his situation.

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I’m afraid I do not buy the analysis on Ewell’s decision one bit. The Union 1st and XIth Corps were retiring in disorder late in afternoon having been beaten in a hard fight west of Gettysburg. Ewell’s Corps was arriving from the North, on the right flank of the collapsing Union line. What do you suppose would have happened to the Union Army if Stonewall Jackson had survived the Battle of Chancellorsville, six weeks earlier, and been commanding that corps instead of Ewell? Those computer simulations up at Norwich are clearly not accurately calculating for momentum and morale.

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For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstance which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

—William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust, 1948.

07 Jul 2017

Oldest Wood-Frame House in the United States

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Vintage News says that the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts is the oldest:

The west wing of the house was built around 1654, and the east wing was added in the 18th century. After its construction, a chimney was built at its top, and around 1800 expansion of the parlor was made on this side. At the same time, a new wing with two rooms was added to the west side, and behind this side, a toilet was made as the last addition to the house.

The early inhabitants of the house carved hex signs into the mantle in order to protect themselves from witches. Also, shoes have been found in the attic to chase away evil spirits. In 1895, one of the heirs, Rebecca Fairbanks, was in a difficult financial situation, so she sold the house to John Crowley who after the selling allowed her to live there.

Later, Rebecca sold many of the family items including a unique wooden chest which was made by John Houghton in 1658. This item was purchased back by the family in 2003.

When Crowley wanted to tear down the house in 1897, it was immediately purchased by Mrs. J. A. Codman and her daughter. In 1904, the newly established Fairbanks Family took the house over, and in 1905 it became a museum. In 1960, it was declared a National Historic Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Two buildings, the La Maison Puisseaux and La maison des Jésuites in Quebec City, date from 1637, but it unclear if they were wood-frame houses.

30 May 2017

The Eccentricity of English

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William conquers Harold and the English language. From Cotton Vitellius A. XIII.(1) f.3v.

John McWhorter explains that the English language has a number of unusual features which are artifacts of the language’s history involving the interaction of several different peoples.

English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal. …

We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family – Indo-European – and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

More weirdness? OK. There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s – why just that? The present‑tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult? …

when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (and also Frisians) brought their language to England, the island was already inhabited by people who spoke very different tongues. Their languages were Celtic ones, today represented by Welsh, Irish and Breton across the Channel in France. The Celts were subjugated but survived, and since there were only about 250,000 Germanic invaders – roughly the population of a modest burg such as Jersey City – very quickly most of the people speaking Old English were Celts.

Crucially, their languages were quite unlike English. For one thing, the verb came first (came first the verb). But also, they had an odd construction with the verb do: they used it to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb. Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk. That looks familiar now because the Celts started doing it in their rendition of English. But before that, such sentences would have seemed bizarre to an English speaker – as they would today in just about any language other than our own and the surviving Celtic ones. Notice how even to dwell upon this queer usage of do is to realise something odd in oneself, like being made aware that there is always a tongue in your mouth.

At this date there is no documented language on earth beyond Celtic and English that uses do in just this way. Thus English’s weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues. We’re still talking like them, and in ways we’d never think of. When saying ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’, have you ever felt like you were kind of counting? Well, you are – in Celtic numbers, chewed up over time but recognisably descended from the ones rural Britishers used when counting animals and playing games. ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’ – what in the world do those words mean? Well, here’s a clue: hovera, dovera, dick were eight, nine and ten in that same Celtic counting list.

RTWT

25 May 2017

The Casual Revolution

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ShenMiners1930s
Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, corner of Main & Centre in front of Miners’ National Bank, circa 1940: coal miners on their days-off would customarily wear suits, neckties, and hats.

G. Bruce Boyer contemplates contemporary society’s abandonment of formality and dignity in favor of “casualness,” i.e. self-indulgent comfort and the absence of effort.

In the early years of the nineteenth century there had been what fashion his­torians have called the “Great Masculine Renunciation” in Western male dress, as men turned their collective backs on all the silks and satins, buckled shoes and powdered wigs of court dress, and assumed the Victorian black worsted suit and cotton shirt of bourgeois middle-class business attire and propriety. The theory, first popularized in 1930 by the psychologist J. C. Flügel, attempted to account for the radical shift that men made to more sober attire after 1800, and the shift is usually seen as an expression of the triumph of the middle class, ­enlarging democracy, and the Industrial Revolution. A more ornate and chivalric ideal was replaced by the modest masculinity of a bourgeois gentleman in a democratic society. A gentleman’s clothes became more sober and standardized, his manners more reserved and proper. The very idea of a “gentleman” seems stuck in the nineteenth century.

At the end of the twentieth century, dress underwent another great change; call it the “Tailored Renunciation” or the “Casual Revolution.” Underlying it is not the triumph of one class but rather the loss among all classes of a sense of occasion. By “occasion” I mean an event out of the ordinary, a function other than our daily lives, an experience for which we take special care and preparation, at which we act and speak and comport ourselves ­differently—events which could be called ritualistic in matters of ­propriety and appearance. There used to be many of these events, social rituals that filled our non-working lives: weddings and funerals, going to church, restaurants, parties, and theaters. Meeting important people of various stripes, people who had greater social standing than we did, was an occasion for our parents and grandparents to dress up, and that included going to the doctor’s office when you were sick, because the doctor was thought to be an important person worthy and deserving of that outward sign of respect. Respect for the event and those in attendance was what made the occasion special.

It can now be said that this sort of an outward sign or almost any of the older outward signs of ritual are considered pure snobbery. After all, wasn’t the Edwardian Age the last time the really rich could hope to think that showing off their wealth in public display gave the poor a nice bit of entertainment and ray of sunshine in their drab lives?

But then, if these outward signs are socially discouraged today, what makes an occasion special? And how do we know? Can an event be an occasion if there’s no attempt to outwardly manifest it? ­Ritualized behavior of one sort or another may be considered an outward sign of our inward disposition. But how complete can this be if it is not expressed in our appearance? We need not agree with Nicolás Gómez-Dávila’s claim that evening dress is the first step toward civilization to think that something has gone amiss. Is it possible to believe that when we now wear polo shirts, khakis, and hyper-designed athletic shoes to weddings, funerals, and graduations, it’s a sign that we have forgotten how to enjoy the events by which we measure life?

RTWT

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

16 Apr 2017

Easter

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Rubensthe-resurrection
Peter Paul Rubens, The Resurrection of Christ, 1611-1612, Vrouwekathedraal, Antwerp

From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:

Easter

Easter, the anniversary of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, is one of the three great festivals of the Christian year,—the other two being Christmas and Whitsuntide. From the earliest period of Christianity down to the present day, it has always been celebrated by believers with the greatest joy, and accounted the Queen of Festivals. In primitive times it was usual for Christians to salute each other on the morning of this day by exclaiming, ‘Christ is risen;’ to which the person saluted replied, ‘Christ is risen indeed,’ or else, ‘And hath appeared unto Simon;’—a custom still retained in the Greek Church.

The common name of this festival in the East was the Paschal Feast, because kept at the same time as the Pascha, or Jewish passover, and in some measure succeeding to it. In the sixth of the Ancyran Canons it is called the Great Day. Our own name Easter is derived, as some suppose, from Eostre, the name of a Saxon deity, whose feast was celebrated every year in the spring, about the same time as the Christian festival—the name being retained when the character of the feast was changed; or, as others suppose, from Oster, which signifies rising. If the latter supposition be correct, Easter is in name, as well as reality, the feast of the resurrection.

Though there has never been any difference of opinion in the Christian church as to why Easter is kept, there has been a good deal as to when it ought to be kept. It is one of the moveable feasts; that is, it is not fixed to one particular day—like Christmas Day, e. g., which is always kept on the 25th of December—but moves backwards or forwards according as the full moon next after the vernal equinox falls nearer or further from the equinox. The rule given at the beginning of the Prayer-book to find Easter is this: ‘Easter-day is always the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon or next after the twenty-first day of March; and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter-day is the Sunday after.’

The paschal controversy, which for a time divided Christendom, grew out of a diversity of custom. The churches of Asia Minor, among whom were many Judaizing Christians, kept their paschal feast on the same day as the Jews kept their passover; i. e., on the 14th of Nisan, the Jewish month corresponding to our March or April. But the churches of the West, remembering that our Lord’s resurrection took place on the Sunday, kept their festival on the Sunday following the 14th of Nisan. By this means they hoped not only to commemorate the resurrection on the day on which it actually occurred, but also to distinguish themselves more effectually from the Jews. For a time this difference was borne with mutual forbearance and charity. And when disputes began to arise, we find that Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, when on a visit to Rome, took the opportunity of conferring with Anicetas, bishop of that city, upon the question. Polycarp pleaded the practice of St. Philip and St. John, with the latter of whom he had lived, conversed, and joined in its celebration; while Anicetas adduced the practice of St. Peter and St. Paul. Concession came from neither side, and so the matter dropped; but the two bishops continued in Christian friendship and concord. This was about A.D. 158.

Towards the end of the century, however, Victor, bishop of Rome, resolved on compelling the Eastern churches to conform to the Western practice, and wrote an imperious letter to the prelates of Asia, commanding them to keep the festival of Easter at the time observed by the Western churches. They very naturally resented such an interference, and declared their resolution to keep Easter at the time they had been accustomed to do. The dispute hence-forward gathered strength, and was the source of much bitterness during the next century. The East was divided from the West, and all who, after the example of the Asiatics, kept Easter-day on the 14th, whether that day were Sunday or not, were styled Qiccertodecimans by those who adopted the Roman custom.

One cause of this strife was the imperfection of the Jewish calendar. The ordinary year of the Jews consisted of 12 lunar months of 292 days each, or of 29 and 30 days alternately; that is, of 354 days. To make up the 11 days’ deficiency, they intercalated a thirteenth month of 30 days every third year. But even then they would be in advance of the true time without other intercalations; so that they often kept their passover before the vernal equinox. But the Western Christians considered the vernal equinox the commencement of the natural year, and objected to a mode of reckoning which might sometimes cause them to hold their paschal feast twice in one year and omit it altogether the next. To obviate this, the fifth of the apostolic canons decreed that, ’ If any bishop, priest, or deacon, celebrated the Holy Feast of Easter before the vernal equinox, as the Jews do, let him be deposed.’

At the beginning of the fourth century, matters had gone to such a length, that the Emperor Constantine thought it his duty to take steps to allay the controversy, and to insure uniformity of practice for the future. For this purpose, he got a canon passed in the great Ecumenical Council of Nice (A.D. 325), that everywhere the great feast of Easter should be observed upon one and the same day; and that not the day of the Jewish passover, but, as had been generally observed, upon the Sunday afterwards. And to prevent all future disputes as to the time, the following rules were also laid down:

    ‘That the twenty-first day of March shall be accounted the vernal equinox.’

    ‘That the full moon happening upon or next after the twenty-first of March, shall be taken for the full moon of Nisan.’

    ‘That the Lord’s-day next following that full moon be Easter-day.’

    ‘But if the full moon happen upon a Sunday, Easter-day shall be the Sunday after.’

As the Egyptians at that time excelled in astronomy, the Bishop of Alexandria was appointed to give notice of Easter-day to the Pope and other patriarchs. But it was evident that this arrangement could not last long; it was too inconvenient and liable to interruptions. The fathers of the next age began, therefore, to adopt the golden numbers of the Metonic cycle, and to place them in the calendar against those days in each month on which the new moons should fall during that year of the cycle. The Metonie cycle was a period of nineteen years. It had been observed by Meton, an Athenian philosopher, that the moon returns to have her changes on the same month and day of the month in the solar year after a lapse of nineteen years, and so, as it were, to run in a circle. He published his discovery at the Olympic Games, B.C. 433, and the cycle has ever since borne his name. The fathers hoped by this cycle to be able always to know the moon’s age; and as the vernal equinox was now fixed to the 21st of March, to find Easter for ever. But though the new moon really happened on the same day of the year after a space of nineteen years as it did before, it fell an hour earlier on that day, which, in the course of time, created a serious error in their calculations.

A cycle was then framed at Rome for 84 years, and generally received by the Western church, for it was then thought that in this space of time the moon’s changes would return not only to the same day of the month, but of the week also. Wheatley tells us that, ‘During the time that Easter was kept according to this cycle, Britain was separated from the Roman empire, and the British churches for some time after that separation continued to keep Easter according to this table of 84 years. But soon after that separation, the Church of Rome and several others discovered great deficiencies in this account, and therefore left it for another which was more perfect.’—Book on the Common Prayer, p. 40. This was the Victorian period of 532 years. But he is clearly in error here. The Victorian period was only drawn up about the year 457, and was not adopted by the Church till the Fourth Council of Orleans, A.D. 541.

Now from the time the Romans finally left Britain (A.D. 426), when he supposes both churches to be using the cycle of 84 years, till the arrival of St. Augustine (A.D. 596), the error can hardly have amounted to a difference worth disputing about. And yet the time the Britons kept Easter must have varied considerably from that of the Roman missionaries to have given rise to the statement that they were Quartodecimans, which they certainly were not; for it is a well-known fact that British bishops were at the Council of Nice, and doubtless adopted and brought home with them the rule laid down by that assembly. Dr. Hooke’s account is far more probable, that the British and Irish churches adhered to the Alexandrian rule, according to which the Easter festival could not begin before the 8th of March; while according to the rule adopted at Rome and generally in the West, it began as early as the fifth. ‘They (the Celts) were manifestly in error,’ he says; ‘but owing to the haughtiness with which the Italians had demanded an alteration in their calendar, they doggedly determined not to change.’—Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. i. p. 14.

After a good deal of disputation had taken place, with more in prospect, Oswy, King of Northumbria, determined to take the matter in hand. He summoned the leaders of the contending parties to a conference at Whitby, A.D. 664, at which he himself presided. Colman, bishop of Lindisfarne, represented the British church. The Romish party were headed by Agilbert, bishop of Dorchester, and Wilfrid, a young Saxon. Wilfrid was spokesman. The arguments were characteristic of the age; but the manner in which the king decided irresistibly provokes a smile, and makes one doubt whether he were in jest or earnest. Colman spoke first, and urged that the custom of the Celtic church ought not to be changed, because it had been inherited from their forefathers, men beloved of God, &c. Wilfrid followed:

    ‘The Easter which we observe I saw celebrated by all at Rome: there, where the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried.’ And concluded a really powerful speech with these words: ‘And if, after all, that Columba of yours were, which I will not deny, a holy man, gifted with the power of working miracles, is he, I ask, to be preferred before the most blessed Prince of the Apostles, to whom our Lord said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and to thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven” ?’

The King, turning to Colman, asked him, ‘Is it true or not, Colman, that these words were spoken to Peter by our Lord?’ Colman, who seems to have been completely cowed, could not deny it. ‘It is true, 0 King.’ ‘Then,’ said the King, ‘can you shew me any such power given to your Columba? ’ Colman answered, ’ No.’ ‘You are both, then, agreed,’ continued the King, are you not, that these words were addressed principally to Peter, and that to him were given the keys of heaven by our Lord?’ Both assented. ‘Then,’ said the King, ‘I tell you plainly, I shall not stand opposed to the door-keeper of the kingdom of heaven; I desire, as far as in me lies, to adhere to his precepts and obey his commands, lest by offending him who keepeth the keys, I should, when I present myself at the gate, find no one to open to me.’

This settled the controversy, though poor honest Colman resigned his see rather than submit to such a decision.

On Easter-day depend all the moveable feasts and fasts throughout the year. The nine Sundays before, and the eight following after, are all dependent upon it, and form, as it were, a body-guard to this Queen of Festivals. The nine preceding are the six Sundays in Lent, Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima; the eight following are the five Sundays after Easter, the Sunday after Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, and Trinity Sunday.

EASTER CUSTOMS

The old Easter customs which still linger among us vary considerably in form in different parts of the kingdom. The custom of distributing the ‘pace’ or ‘pasche ege,’ which was once almost universal among Christians, is still observed by children, and by the peasantry in Lancashire. Even in Scotland, where the great festivals have for centuries been suppressed, the young people still get their hard-boiled dyed eggs, which they roll about, or throw, and finally eat. In Lancashire, and in Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire, and perhaps in other counties, the ridiculous custom of ‘lifting’ or ‘heaving’ is practised.

On Easter Monday the men lift the women, and on Easter Tuesday the women lift or heave the men. The process is performed by two lusty men or women joining their hands across each other’s wrists; then, making the person to be heaved sit down on their arms, they lift him up aloft two or three times, and often carry him several yards along a street. A grave clergyman who happened to be passing through a town in Lancashire on an Easter Tuesday, and having to stay an hour or two at an inn, was astonished by three or four lusty women rushing into his room, exclaiming they had come ‘to lift him.’ ‘To lift me!’ repeated the amazed divine; ‘what can you mean?’ ‘Why, your reverence, we’re come to lift you, ‘cause it’s Easter Tuesday.’ ‘Lift me because it’s Easter Tuesday? I don’t understand. Is there any such custom here?’ ‘Yes, to be sure; why, don’t you know? all us women was lifted yesterday; and us lifts the men today in turn. And in course it’s our rights and duties to lift ‘em.’

After a little further parley, the reverend traveller compromised with his fair visitors for half-a-crown, and thus escaped the dreaded compliment. In Durham, on Easter Monday, the men claim the privilege to take off the women’s shoes, and the next day the women retaliate. Anciently, both ecclesiastics and laics used to play at ball in the churches for tansy-cakes on Eastertide; and, though the profane part of this custom is happily everywhere discontinued, tansy-cakes and tansy-puddings are still favourite dishes at Easter in many parts. In some parishes in the counties of Dorset and Devon, the clerk carries round to every house a few white cakes as an Easter offering; these cakes, which are about the eighth of an inch thick, and of two sizes —the larger being seven or eight inches, the smaller about five in diameter— have a mingled bitter and sweet taste. In return for these cakes, which are always distributed after Divine service on Good Friday, the clerk receives a gratuity- according to the circumstances or generosity of the householder.

12 Apr 2017

When Humans First Daubed Arrows With Poison

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The Conversation:

When did human beings start tipping their weapons with poison to hunt prey? This is a question at the forefront of recent archaeological research.

In southern Africa San (or Bushman) hunter-gatherer groups, such as the /Xam of the Western Cape and the Ju/wasi and Hei//om of Namibia, used poisoned arrows for hunting during the 19th and 20th centuries. The origins of this technology, though, may be far older than we thought.

Recently, traces of the poison ricin were found on a 24 000 year-old wooden poison applicator at Border Cave in South Africa’s Lebombo mountains. If this identification is correct it would mean that people in southern Africa were among the first in the world to harness the potential of plant-based poisons.

RTWT

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

06 Apr 2017

Seven Living Generations

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28 Mar 2017

Trump, the last Rockefeller Republican

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Back in the 1960s, young conservatives used to sing a parody of “Rock of Ages” that, in part, went:

“Rockefeller’s not for me,
He is anti-GOP.
He is for the Welfare State,
And he’s had more than one mate.”

Throughout the 2016 Presidential Campaign, theoretically-inclined Americans struggled to identify exactly where Donald Trump belonged on the scale of ideology.

Trump had no political record. And Trump’s combination of positions, including Nativism, Protectionism, along with promises to repeal Obamacare, yet at the same time, “take care of everybody” had little to do with either conventional liberalism or conservativism.

Last week’s Obamacare Repeal-and-Replace effort failed because the small, actually seriously principled portion of House Republicans, the Freedom Caucus, declined to follow Trump’s leadership, when that leadership insisted on retaining the socialist heart of Barack Obama’s great leap forward into conformity with the Bismarkian model of National Health Care embraced by so many European and Asian countries.

Just yesterday, I happened to catch Fox News’ Chris Wallace referring with Establishment disdain to the Freedom Caucus’s insistence on removing key Obamacare features such as universal coverage including the subsidizing of health insurance for the elderly and ill by an insurance purchase requirement for the healthy and young.

Last week’s breakdown of Republican solidarity exposed the ideological fault line dividing Donald Trump (and his Nationalist Alt-Right inner circle) and the mainstream GOP. Serious, ideologically-principled Republicans are still Goldwater Republicans, determined to fight for government consistent with the ideals and principles of the founders, firmly resistant to Progressive appeals to sentimentality, Populism, and the example of European countries.

Donald Trump lacks Nelson Rockefeller’s Dartmouth polish and patrician accent, but we begin to see revealed the basic similarities. Like Rockefeller, Trump is a divorcée and a flagrant sexual opportunist, utterly indifferent to conventional Middle American sexual morality. Trump has the advantage of operating decades further along in the progressive decline of Religion and morality in the United States. Back in the 1960s, a divorced man was looked upon as an untrustworthy oath-breaker and loose-liver, unfit for national office. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan (who had been long divorced) ran, it was a non-issue. Last Fall, Trump proved that, in the 21st Century, a fellow on the record with having approximately the same sort of approach to romance as Hugh Hefner, would have little difficulty brushing off even feminist indignation and could easily be elected.

Last week’s events, on the positive side, confirmed again that Donald Trump is a man of his word. He promised a great and beautiful replacement of Obamacare bill that would cover everyone and he attempted to ram that through. On the negative side, all this confirms that Donald Trump has no ideological aversion to the Welfare State and no theoretical commitment to stopping, or turning back, the Left’s step-by-step march toward universal socialism. Trump is, at best, a “Me Too, But a Little Less” Republican in the style of Eisenhower. More accurately, in the combative New York-style of the late Nelson Rockefeller.

Like Rockefeller, Trump is (mostly) pro-business, though he will expect business to play ball with government. Like Rockefeller, Trump is a law-and-order Republican. Trump means to enforce immigration laws. He will continue to wage the War on Drugs. He will continue to lock ’em up, and will probably increase sentences at some point. Like Rockefeller, Trump will devote a serious effort to making Big Government more efficient and more economical, thus enabling the Welfare State to avoid longer its inevitable bankruptcy.

In the political contest for the Presidency, Trump went from triumph to triumph. Trump’s fidelity to his campaign promises, and his business-like style of going right to work and expecting results NOW, not next year or the year after, was refreshing and gave the opening months of his presidency a positive tone. Wall Street responded by booming.

Now, Trump has experienced his first real setback, his first political defeat. How Trump responds to this one will obviously have a major impact on the overall success of his presidency. If Trump simply sulks and blames conservatives for saving Obamacare, the same pattern of failure is bound to repeat itself. If Trump instead learns to compromise and goes back and puts together a renewed alliance with conservative Republicans, there is nothing stopping him from trying again and finally repealing and eradicating the legacy of Barack Obama from American life, and then moving forward more strongly than before to fulfill the rest of his promises and agenda.

He has already comfortably surpassed the political achievements of Nelson Rockefeller. Hopefully, Trump will avoid Rockefeller’s example of bitter progressive Republican animosity toward conservative Republicans and Rockefeller’s ultimately futile isolation.

06 Mar 2017

Fall of the Alamo

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Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, Fall of the Alamo, 1903, Texas State Archives.

March 6, 1836: Following a thirteen-day siege, more than 2000 Mexican troops launched a pre-dawn attack from all four sides on the fortress defended by 180 men. The Mexicans were repulsed twice, but a third assault gained the north wall and broke through the west wall. After fierce fighting, the defenders were killed to a man. The casualties included Colonel William Barret Travis, James Bowie, and former Congressman from Tennessee David Crockett.

25 Feb 2017

End of the Greenland Colony

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Ruins of Hvalsey Church, Greenland.

Tim Folger, at Smithsonian, describes the current academic debate over the vanishing of the Viking colony on Greenland.

Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end. Why else would ivory fragments be so prevalent among the excavated sites? And why else would the Vikings send so many able-bodied men on hunting expeditions to the far north at the height of the farming season? “There was a huge potential for ivory export,” says Smiarowski, “and they set up farms to support that.” Ivory drew them to Greenland, ivory kept them there, and their attachment to that toothy trove may be what eventually doomed them.

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When the Norse arrived in Greenland, there were no locals to teach them how to live. “The Scandinavians had this remarkable ability to colonize these high-latitude islands,” says Andrew Dugmore. “You have to be able to hunt wild animals; you have to build up your livestock; you have to work hard to exist in these areas….This is about as far as you can push the farming system in the Northern Hemisphere.”

And push it they did. The growing season was short, and the land vulnerable to overgrazing. Ian Simpson has spent many seasons in Greenland studying soil layers where the Vikings farmed. The strata, he says, clearly show the impact of their arrival: The earliest layers are thinner, with less organic material, but within a generation or two the layers stabilized and the organic matter built up as the Norse farmwomen manured and improved their fields while the men were out hunting. “You can interpret that as being a sign of adaptation, of them getting used to the landscape and being able to read it a little better,” Simpson says.

For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self-sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. “Norse society in Greenland couldn’t survive without trade with Europe,” says Arneborg, “and that’s from day one.”

Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean storms—ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. “The fashion for ivory began to wane,” says Dugmore, “and there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.” And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norway—which was Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world—perished.

The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasn’t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churches—like the one at Hvalsey—in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goods—and with fewer Europeans left—their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic.

“If you consider the world today, many communities will face exposure to climate change,” says Dugmore. “They’ll also face issues of globalization. The really difficult bit is when you have exposure to both.”

**********

So what was the endgame like in Greenland? Although archaeologists now agree that the Norse did about as well as any society could in confronting existential threats, they remain divided over how the Vikings’ last days played out. Some believe that the Norse, faced with the triple threat of economic collapse, pandemic and climate change, simply packed up and left. Others say the Norse, despite their adaptive ingenuity, met a far grimmer fate.

For McGovern, the answer is clear. “I think in the end this was a real tragedy. This was the loss of a small community, a thousand people maybe at the end. This was extinction.”

The Norse, he says, were especially vulnerable to sudden death at sea. Revised population estimates, based on more accurate tallies of the number of farms and graves, put the Norse Greenlanders at no more than 2,500 at their peak—less than half the conventional figure. Every spring and summer, nearly all the men would be far from home, hunting. As conditions for raising cattle worsened, the seal hunts would have been ever more vital—and more hazardous. Despite the decline of the ivory trade, the Norse apparently continued to hunt walrus until the very end. So a single storm at sea could have wiped out a substantial number of Greenland’s men—and by the 14th century the weather was increasingly stormy. “You see similar things happening at other places and other times,” McGovern says. “In 1881, there was a catastrophic storm when the Shetland fishing fleet was out in these little boats. In one afternoon about 80 percent of the men and boys of the Shetlands drowned. A whole bunch of little communities never recovered.”

Norse society itself comprised two very small communities: the Eastern and Western settlements. With such a sparse population, any loss—whether from death or emigration—would have placed an enormous strain on the survivors. “If there weren’t enough of them, the seal hunt would not be successful,” says Smiarowski. “And if it was not successful for a couple of years in a row, then it would be devastating.”

McGovern thinks a few people might have migrated out, but he rules out any sort of exodus. If Greenlanders had emigrated en masse to Iceland or Norway, surely there would have been a record of such an event. Both countries were literate societies, with a penchant for writing down important news. “If you had hundreds or a thousand people coming out of Greenland,” McGovern says, “someone would have noticed.”

Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied Viking burial sites in Greenland, isn’t so sure. “I think in Greenland it happened very gradually and undramatically,” he tells me as we sit in his office, beneath a poster of the Belgian cartoon character Tintin. “Maybe it’s the usual human story. People move to where there are resources. And they move away when something doesn’t work for them.” As for the silence of the historical record, he says, a gradual departure might not have attracted much attention.

The ruins themselves hint at an orderly departure. There is no evidence of conflict with the Inuit or of any intentional damage to homesteads. And aside from a gold ring found on the skeletal finger of a bishop at Gardar, and his narwhal-tusk staff, no items of real value have been found at any sites in Greenland. “When you abandon a small settlement, what do you take with you? The valuables, the family jewelry,” says Lynnerup. “You don’t leave your sword or your good metal knife….You don’t abandon Christ on his crucifix. You take that along. I’m sure the cathedral would have had some paraphernalia—cups, candelabras—which we know medieval churches have, but which have never been found in Greenland.”

Jette Arneborg and her colleagues found evidence of a tidy leave-taking at a Western Settlement homestead known as the Farm Beneath the Sands. The doors on all but one of the rooms had rotted away, and there were signs that abandoned sheep had entered those doorless rooms. But one room retained a door, and it was closed. “It was totally clean. No sheep had been in that room,” says Arneborg. For her, the implications are obvious. “They cleaned up, took what they wanted, and left. They even closed the doors.”

Perhaps the Norse could have toughed it out in Greenland by fully adopting the ways of the Inuit. But that would have meant a complete surrender of their identity. They were civilized Europeans—not skraelings, or wretches, as they called the Inuit. “Why didn’t the Norse just go native?” Lynnerup asks. “Why didn’t the Puritans just go native? But of course they didn’t. There was never any question of the Europeans who came to America becoming nomadic and living off buffalo.”

We do know that at least two people made it out of Greenland alive: Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson, the couple who married at Hvalsey’s church. They eventually settled in Iceland, and in 1424, for reasons lost to history, they needed to provide letters and witnesses proving that they had been married in Greenland. Whether they were among a lucky few survivors or part of a larger immigrant community may remain unknown. But there’s a chance that Greenland’s Vikings never vanished, that their descendants are with us still.

Read the whole thing.

22 Feb 2017

Washington’s Birthday

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The submersion of the national holiday honoring George Washington into a generic and meaningless “Presidents Day” is one of the nearly too-many-to-count bad things we owe to the administration of the late and unlamented Richard Nixon. A number of editorialists this year are arguing that America needs to do the right thing by going back to honoring our first, and possibly greatest, national hero.

John R. Miller:

In 1968, the public-employee unions, seeking a three-day weekend, convinced Congress to move the commemoration of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February. This eventually led to what we now call Presidents Day, which marks the birthday not only of Washington but of Lincoln and all other presidents. By celebrating every birthday, we effectively celebrate none.

Washington’s contemporaries hailed his Revolutionary War victories at Trenton and Yorktown, but they honored him more for risking his fame, fortune and life in taking on military responsibilities for which he wasn’t paid—and then giving up command to return to his farm and family. The young American citizenry esteemed him for bringing together and presiding over the Constitutional Convention, but they honored him more for his steadfastness in holding the colonies together and facing down potential insurrectionists who might have seized the government and made him a military dictator. And while they appreciated him returning to public service as president, they honored him more for leaving an office that many expected him to hold for life.

Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries were unaware of, but they would not have been surprised by, what King George III supposedly said upon hearing that Washington, after winning the Revolutionary War, had refused to be king: “If that is true, he must be the greatest man in the world.” …

Our ancestors expected that America would produce other great leaders. But they celebrated Washington’s birthday because, as the Connecticut Courant observed in 1791, “Many a private man might make a great president; but will there ever be a President who will make so great a man as WASHINGTON?”

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