As a collective civilization, we’ve made some strides in how we care for the poor and frail but, even in the 21st century, the indigent are often relegated to both anonymous lives and anonymous deaths. So when scientists were able to re-create the life of a man who lived 700 years ago from his remains, it offered a tremendous insight, not just into his life, but into the lives of the countless impoverished citizens of medieval England.
This face—and the man—are known by the clinical and cold moniker Context 958, one of several hundred buried corpses exhumed from graves behind the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, around 2010. The subject was presumed to have been a ward of the hospital or church, likely poor and/or ill, at the time of his death in the 13th century. [continue, see photos]
From Wonders and Marvels: Risk Insurance in the Eighteenth Century.
Travelers to distant lands have always known that risk is an inevitable part of the adventure. And from ancient times they invented ways to mitigate that risk. Medieval English guilds established funds to provide for their members in the event of accident when they were abroad. Fifteenth-century pilgrims would ensure themselves against captivity. For a certain payment, the insurer would agree to ransom the traveler should he be captured by pirates or Arabs.
As travel expanded, individual traveler’s insurance took on the form of a bet on their own survival – a broker would take a specific amount and agree to pay it back with substantial interest if the traveler returned. The risks of travel were so high that it was usually assumed impossible to purchase insurance that would pay out to someone else if the traveler did not come home. [continue]
Later, a fad for hermits swept 18th-century England. It was believed that hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, so advertisements were placed in newspapers for “ornamental hermits” who were lax in grooming and willing to sleep in caves on the country estates of the aristocracy. The job paid well and hundreds were hired, typically on seven-year contracts. Some of the hermits would even emerge at dinner parties and greet guests.
Where do I sign up for that? Live in a cave on a good salary, and attend dinner parties? Now that I could do. I’d have to dress down, though.
The quoted text above is from an article about a modern-day hermit: Into the woods: how one man survived alone in the wilderness for 27 years. I enjoyed the article for several of reasons – who can resist the tale of a fellow who escapes modern civilization? – but it’s the comment about ornamental hermits that has my imagination reeling.
And this ornamental hermit thing really did exist! A page at the University of Leicester site, Ornamental hermits: an 18th century ‘must-have’, notes this:
Hermits were often hired for seven years, required to refrain from cutting their hair or washing and had to live austerely. They could receive up to £600 in return, enough to never work again.
Enough to never work again. Enough to never work again. Enough to never work again. Not a bad deal, really, if the dinner parties are good.
Oh and there’s a book on the topic, too: The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. It was written by Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester, which is why the university has the hermity page I mentioned above.
You’ll enjoy this Smithsonian Magazine article, I think: The Fake British Radio Show That Helped Defeat the Nazis. Summary:
By spreading fake news and sensational rumors, intelligence officials leveraged “psychological judo” against the Nazis in World War II.
See? It’s just what you want to read while you sip your coffee.
From the Beeb: Rabbit hole in farmer’s field leads to ‘mystery caves’.
An apparently ordinary rabbit’s hole in a farmer’s field leads to an underground sanctuary said to have been used by devotees of a medieval religious order – but is everything what it seems?
According to local legend, the Caynton Caves, near Shifnal, in Shropshire, were used by followers of the Knights Templar in the 17th Century.
Located less than a metre underground, they appear to be untouched structurally.
Their original purpose is shrouded in mystery, but Historic England, which describes the caves as a “grotto”, believes they were probably built in the late 18th or early 19th Century – hundreds of years after the Templar order was dissolved. [continue]
I think you’ll want to see the photos.
From Heritage Daily: MOLA excavations at Crossrail Farringdon site reveal secrets of Tudor Life.
Excavations carried out by MOLA at the Crossrail site at Farringdon have revealed fascinating insights into daily life in Tudor London in recently published findings.
The site in the heart of the capital has already provided remarkable information about the Black Death in London, but now analysis of artefacts extracted from the re-discovered Faggeswell brook, that flowed past Charterhouse Square, revealed more about the people living in the area during the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Due to the wet ground conditions in the area of the brook, MOLA archaeologists were able to recover rarely found Tudor textiles, leather and plant remains all preserved in excellent condition. It is very rare that textiles and leather survive in the ground, and it is only because of the damp conditions which stopped oxygen form decaying the organic materials that there is such an invaluable insight into the lives of ordinary Londoners and the gentry.
Tudor leather shoes: 22 shoes made of thick cattle leather range from unisex slip-on shoes, similar to modern-day shoes, to styles [continue]
Ha! There’s the most interesting bit, at least for me. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with minimalist / handmade / historical footwear ever since 2008 when I pointed you to an article about how shoes hurt our feet.
Anyway, the Heritage Daily article has a good photo of one of the shoes they found.
From Science Nordic: New study reignites debate over Viking settlements in England.
The Vikings plundered, raided, and eventually reigned over a large part of what is modern day England. But exactly how many Danish Vikings migrated west and settled down in the British Isles?
In 2015, a large DNA study sparked a row between DNA scientists and archaeologists after concluding that the Danish Vikings had a “relatively limited” influence on the British—a direct contradiction to archaeological remains and historical documents.
“We see no clear genetic evidence of the Danish Viking occupation and control of a large part of England,” write DNA scientists in a study published in the scientific journal Nature in 2015.
From Live Science: Secret Room in UK Mansion Tied to King James I Assassination Attempt.
Agile scientists equipped with 3D laser scanners have revealed the secrets of a hidden room, known as a “priest hole,” in the tower of an English Tudor mansion linked to the failed “Gunpowder Plot” to assassinate King James I in 1605.
A new study reveals how the secret double room was constructed in the tower of a gatehouse at Coughton Court in Warwickshire, as a hiding place for priests during the anti-Catholic persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Catholic priests faced execution as traitors under the English laws of the time, and they were often tortured to reveal their accomplices, according to Christopher King, an assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, and one of the lead researchers of the study. [See More Photos of the Secret “Priest Hole” at Coughton Court]
Despite being outlawed, many priests chose to [continue]
Want more? The National Trust has info on their Coughton Court site. The most interesting of those pages, I think, is One house, one family, one faith…. It gives an overview of the house’s history, and features a photo of the priest hole.
For more on priest holes in general, see:
From Atlas Obscura: Queen Elizabeth I’s vast spy network was the first surveillance state.
In a lowly tavern in an English town in the 1580s, a group of men met to organize the assassination of their monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. The head of the operation, Anthony Babington, planned to rescue and crown Mary of Scotland, an alternative heir to the English throne who had been imprisoned in the castle dungeon for 20 years. He detailed the plan to Mary as a cipher—a secret note in code— and snuck it to her in a shipment of beer. But Mary had no idea that his note had been opened and then resealed by a double agent posed as a courier, who was waiting for her reply. When Mary wrote back, the agent exposed the plot, and both she and Babington were executed.
Long before NSA surveillance, Queen Elizabeth had her own “Watchers,” a network of agents who intercepted letters, cracked codes, and captured possible dissenters to protect the crown in secret. The queen’s network of spies formed the original surveillance state in the U.K., and she started it for good reason. [continue]
Wouldn’t she be envious of the state’s spying apparatus now! So much easier when you can just snoop up on all electronic communication.
An Atlas Obscura article makes it clear that the Victorians were insane.
Indeed, in the early years of Queen Victoria’s rule, Christmas rivaled Spring Break for sheer bawdiness and self-destruction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bonkers Victorian parlor game of Snapdragon.
Traditionally played on Christmas Eve, players of Snapdragon must find themselves a broad, shallow bowl, and then prepare to risk their health. Into this bowl should be poured two dozen raisins. If raisins are hard to come by, almonds, grapes or plums will suffice. You should then pour a bottle of brandy into the bowl so that the raisins bob up and down like drowning flies. Place the bowl on a sturdy table, turn the lights down low, and then, with appropriate panache, ignite the brandy.
To play Snapdragon, arrange your family and friends around the blazing bowl so that their faces are lit in a demonic fashion and then, one by one, take turns plunging your hands into the flames in order to try and grab a raisin. If you can accomplish this, promptly extinguish the flaming raisin by popping it into your mouth and eating it. [continue]
Oh my. That rather out-does beer pong.
The Independent’s Christmas fun: Victorian parlour games page explains snapdragon, and goes on to tell us about other games, like this one:
If family relations have become slightly fraught over Christmas, you may be looking for a game involving rather more explicit violence, in which case you’ve come to the right paragraph: Moriarty is the game you’re after. [continue]
That article has lots more you’ll want to read.
Christmas parties these days are pretty tame events, all in all.
Oh, just imagine making a batch of this stuff! From the Guardian: Very merry seventeenth century punch recipe found in Yorkshire.
A recipe for a very merry Christmas drink for 17th century monks, beginning with ten pints of brandy, has been rediscovered by a Durham university academic, in the archives of Ampleforth Abbey in north Yorkshire.
The recipes – there were two similar versions, one for a punch, one for a drink known as “shrub” – were written down for English Benedictine monks who were in exile in France after the dissolution of the monasteries. Both were flavoured with orange and lemon peel, with added sugar and water, and involved days of steeping and mixing the ingredients. [continue]
The Guardian article’s link to the Monks in Motion site is wrong. The correct address is:
Who can resist things that land on the intersection of history and geekiness? From the Guardian: School for teenage codebreakers to open in Bletchley Park.
Its first operatives famously cracked coded messages encrypted by the Nazis, hastening the end of the second world war.
Now Bletchley Park is planning a new school for the next generation of codebreakers in order to plug a huge skills gap in what is fast emerging as the biggest security threat to 21st-century Britain. [continue]
Grab a cup of coffee, my dears, and head over to Virtual Tudors. The site introduces itself with this:
When Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, sank in 1545 almost 500 people drowned. Now, almost five hundred years on, scientific analysis of their skeletons is providing new insights into Tudor history. This digital resource enables researchers around the world to join the project and study virtual 3D reconstructions of ten skulls belonging to members of the crew. Once fully developed, this technology can be applied to many more historic objects, bringing them to an even wider community of researchers while preventing damage to the original remains and artefacts.
Wow! From the BBC: London ‘alight’ for Great Fire retelling.
A giant wooden replica of 17th century London has been set ablaze on the River Thames in a retelling of the Great Fire of London 350 years ago.
Crowds gathered on the banks of the Thames to watch the 120-metre long model go up in flames. [continue]
This is spectacular. You’ve got to go see the photos!
In his excellent book The History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham describes four ways in which we lose our landscape: the loss of beauty, of freedom, of wildlife and vegetation, and of meaning. There’s also a fifth way in which we can lose our landscape: by forgetting.
Water meadows – true water meadows that is – were found alongside many rivers in England, but it was the chalk rivers of the South that lent their unique qualities particularly well to the creation of what has been called the pinnacle of intensive farming before the industrial revolution. In a historical context intensive is a term which, when compared to the mechanised, economically driven farming that holds sway over much of our countryside today, rather pales into insignificance. True water meadows were not just meadows alongside rivers that were flooded in times of high flows, but meadows that were purposely flooded or drowned – the men carrying out the flooding were called drowners – using an artificially dug channels. They ranged from simple gravity fed systems to a complex plexus of sluices, hatches, drains, mains, carriers and channels. The idea was not to flood the meadows with standing water which would kill the grasses, but to have a constant stream or trickle of water flowing into, across and then out of the meadow. By drowning at particular times of year, and preventing frosts, Spring growth on a water meadow occurred earlier. Livestock would benefit from the ‘early bite,’ and a harvestable hay crop also occurred earlier. [continue]
From Atlas Obscura: Britain’s Most Famous 1700s Sailor Spent 4 Years Disguised as a Man.
In 1747, when she was 22, Hannah Snell left home in search of her missing husband. Instead, she found fame. Over the next five years, she became a a sailor and a fighter, all while posing as a man. When Snell returned home and revealed her true gender, far from paying a price for deceit, she became an instant celebrity across Britain.
Snell grew up in landlocked Worcester, England, the daughter of a dyer who had nine children. By the time she was 17, her parents had died, and she had moved to London, to the house of an older sister. It was in the big city that she met James Summs, a Dutch sailor, and married him.
Summs, it seems, was a scoundrel. [continue]
Wow. Can you imagine?
In medieval Europe, those who could afford to do so would generously season their stews with saffron, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Sugar was ubiquitous in savory dishes. And haute European cuisine, until the mid-1600s, was defined by its use of complex, contrasting flavors.
“The real question, then, is why the wealthy, powerful West — with unprecedented access to spices from its colonies — became so fixated on this singular understanding of flavor,” Srinivas says.
The answer, it turns out, has just as much to do with economics, politics and religion as it does taste. [continue]
From The Public Domain Review: The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque.
At the end of the seventeenth century a new literary genre or subgenre emerged in England, one that might be characterized as the nocturnal picaresque. Its authors, who were moralists or satirists or social tourists, or all of these at the same time, and who were almost invariably male, purported to recount their episodic adventures as pedestrians patrolling the streets of the metropolis at night.
These narratives, which often provided detailed portraits of particular places, especially ones with corrupt reputations, also paid close attention to the precise times when more or less nefarious activities unfolded in the streets. As distinct from diaries, they were noctuaries (in his Dictionary of the English Language , Samuel Johnson defined a “noctuary” simply as “an account of what passes at night”).1 These apparently unmediated, more or less diaristic accounts of what happened during the course of the night on the street embodied either a tragic or a comic parable of the city, depending on whether their authors intended to celebrate its nightlife or condemn it as satanic.
The nocturnal picaresque, composed more often in prose than verse, was a distinctively modern, metropolitan form that, like several other literary genres that emerged in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comprised [continue]
From Port Magazine: The Last Master Cooper.
In November 1983, a young Alastair Simms was placed in the barrel he had just made, doused in water, and covered in a ‘muck’ of soot, feathers, shavings, beer and treacle. The outside of his barrel was then hammered by a dozen strong-armed coopers and rolled around and around. They lifted him out, tossed him in the air three times while singing, then dumped him back in again, only for him to emerge a few seconds later to be christened a fully-fledged journeyman cooper. In otherwards, a practitioner of the ancient craft of barrel making.
Thirty-two years on, a framed black and white photograph captures that moment: a teenage lad, face masked in filth, beaming as he crawls out of a beer barrel. It was, Simms confirms, a momentous day. “The initiation ceremony’s called ‘Trussing the Cooper’,” he says proudly, standing in his own cooperage White Rose in North Yorkshire, England. “It’s not changed since the 14th century.” Needless to say, it makes the rugby initiations at British universities look tame.
If becoming a cooper is a feat in itself, remaining one in the 21st century is a triumph. Last time Alastair Simms approached the media, it was to sound the alarm bells for the death of the coopering trade. “There are only four breweries left who employ coopers in the country and I’m the only master,” he announced back in 2009. He’d trained an apprentice while working with Weston’s Brewery in the 1990s – hence the ‘master’ title – yet he was struggling to find a new protégé. “Coopering is a proper historic, old-fashioned trade and if you don’t have a skill with your hands from a very young age then you can’t learn it,” he continued. Without a 16-year-old apprentice prepared to stick with him for five years, the art of coopering would follow him to the grave. [continue]
Now this is a treasure of a thing. Settle down and read Caitlin Green’s article, The medieval ‘New England’: a forgotten Anglo-Saxon colony on the north-eastern Black Sea coast. It begins:
Although the name ‘New England’ is now firmly associated with the east coast of America, this is not the first place to be called that. In the medieval period there was another Nova Anglia, ‘New England’, and it lay far to the east of England, rather than to the west, in the area of the Crimean peninsula. The following post examines some of the evidence relating to this colony, which was said to have been established by Anglo-Saxon exiles after the Norman conquest of 1066 and seems to have survived at least as late as the thirteenth century. [continue]
From the BBC: Maritime ‘treasure trove’ raised.
A treasure trove of artefacts is being recovered from what experts describe as one of the most important maritime discoveries since the Mary Rose.
The late 16th Century shipwreck hails from a pivotal point in England’s military history.
The raised haul includes a 2m-long (7ft) cannon, which will give archaeologists an insight into Elizabeth I’s naval might. […]
Dr Mensun Bound, excavation leader and marine archaeologist from Oxford University, said: "This boat is really grade A in terms of archaeology – it is hard to find anything that really compares with it." [continue]