Saturday, January 30, 2021

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Chalices, 1826-1827

Meta-Panic Buying

There's a snow storm in our forecast, due tomorrow afternoon. Not a very big storm, mind you, just six inches (15 cm) or so. But my grocery store was completely mobbed already at 7:00 AM today, and the checkers told me it was worse yesterday. There really isn't any reason to rush to the store 48 hours before a storm hits. I think people rushed to the story two days early to beat, not the storm, but the pre-storm panic buying. They are afraid, not of the weather, but of the pre-storm crowds. So, meta-panic buying.

Estonian Folklore and the "King Game"

As in most European countries, nineteenth-century Estonian folklorists collected and published hundreds of pieces of folk verbal culture. In Estonia and Finland much of this was songs; the old lore of all the Finno-Ugric languages comes mostly in the form of songs. So modern Finns and Estonians have an inheritance of hundreds of old songs of various lengths. Nineteenth-century editors put what they thought was the oldest material together into epics (the Finnish Kalevala, the Estonian Deeds of Kalevipoeg) but that was largely their invention; what the folklorists recorded was just lots of songs and stories about the old heroes. (Something like the way an epic of Arthur was created out of a bunch of medieval songs and poems.)

Of course nineteenth-century folklorists thought this stuff was ancient and pagan, stretching back to the early Middle Ages at least. But was it really? How would we know? Estonian folklorist Kristo Siig got to wondering if there was some piece of factual information in all those songs that he could tie to a particular period of the past. He hit on an old game called the Kuningamäng, or King Game:

In the beginning, players of the game are in a circle or in a row, walking or sitting. The player called the ‘King’ is separated from the other players, most frequently located in the center of the circle. The game (as in most older song games) begins with an introductory song from the players that involves most of the verbal part of the game. At first, there is a vocative address to the King, followed by a reproach that he has come at the wrong time, since the current economic situation is worse than the year before or than at any other earlier time. This is escribed in sharp contrast to beer flowing in rivers and wine from springs the year before: there is nothing left now, “in the poor time of spring”. The players also complain that the King is now taking the last of their possessions and assets, mostly described in terms of jewelry. Both statistically and structurally, this seems to be the most crystallized and coherent verbal part of the game.

The game then continues with the King taking away possessions from the players as pledges. This part also features some singing, but it is much less coherent and more variable. Lastly, the players turn to the King and request the return of their possessions. In the associated song, they often explain the origin of their jewelry by stating that these are personal items of emotional significance. At the same time, the players express reluctance to give the King domestic animals in exchange. In the action of the game, the pledges are returned when players perform tasks given by the king.

What the heck is this about? 

For one thing, Estonia was ruled by foreign kings and emperors from the 13th century to 1918, most of whom never set foot in Estonia. So it's hard to see why any folklore since that time would focus on an Estonian king.(The Estonian word for king is a German load word, but Siig says the linguists agree it was borrowed a long time ago, certainly before the high middle ages.)  Second, the kings in the game don't do anything bureaucratic like collect taxes. They simply show up and demand to be fed and given "gifts." The people reply that this is a terrible time for the king to show up and make demands, since it has been an awful year; if only he had come last year, a time of plenty! The king, undaunted, takes their jewelry and will only return it when they give him what he wants, that is, food and domestic animals. Finally the conflict is resolved when the commoners do tasks assigned by the king.

This sounds, as Siig says, a lot like early medieval kingship. What kings did was travel around to various places and have the local people feed them. And what common people did in response to demands from kings was to plead poverty. (The poverty part of course went on for a long time.) 
Such a system is known for example from Kievan Rus’ under the name poljud’e. According to Byzantine writers, the Great Prince left Kiev in early winter and travelled through all the lands of the Slavic tribes that held allegiance to him. In the spring, when ice on the Dnieper melted, he returned to Kiev laden with furs and other gifts.

So, says Stiig, maybe the King Game harkens back to the pre-Christian early middle ages. It's an interesting argument, but then I am predisposed to think that a lot of this stuff is thousands of years old.

Kristo Siig, "Kuningamän [‘King Game’]: An Echo of a Prehistoric Ritual of Power in Estonis." The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter, University of Helsinki, 2012.

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Armada Maps

These wonderful sixteenth-century maps are in the news because they were sold to a private buyer outside Britain, but the Royal Navy Museum was able to raise £600,000 to buy them and keep them in the country. I just love these maps, drawn within a few years of the battle by someone with intimate knowledge of the events. The maps are actually very large and show the whole English channel, but I have clipped out sections to show here. You can peruse the huge, complete maps at The History Blog.

The Spanish fleet, 130 vessels, was supposed to sail to Flanders, pick up a Spanish army of 16,000 men, and transport the army to England, where it would depose Queen Elizabeth and restore Catholicism. Their goal was not to fight the English fleet, which experience had taught them was a very difficult thing to do, but avoid it or survive its attacks until the soldiers had been landed. The Armada therefore took up this crescent-shaped defensive formation, with powerful warships at the ends and in the center, the troop transports in the wings. 

The Spanish ships were bigger, taller, and carried more men, so the English could not risk grappling with them. The English tried instead to stand off and engage the Spaniards with cannons. However, their cannons were not strong enough to destroy the large Spanish ships from long range. The English tried once to engage in earnest, but made little impact, not sinking a single Spanish ship.

After that fight a day-long naval standoff ensued, as the Spanish sailed carefully up the channel in formation, the English nipping at their heels. Notice the wind blowing strongly from the southwest.

Holding that tight formation was difficult to do safely, however. Two large Spanish ships collided and were badly damaged, and they had to be left behind. This snipped shows Drake's squadron capturing one of the damaged ships, the Rosario. This turned out to be an important event because Drake discovered that the Spanish ships were so heavily laden with supplies for the army that they could not even fire many of their guns.

Emboldened by this knowledge, the English attacked again, sailing in much closer and doing more significant damage. The fighting was done within musket range, so less than 100 yards. But again they failed to sink any Spanish ships.

The English were unable to break the Spanish formation, and the Spaniards arrived off Calais. Once there they discovered that their army was not able to join them. There was no deep water port they could use, so they were planning to ferry the army out on barges, and in fact for half the army to cross the Channel on the barges. But the Dutch navy, using shallow draft vessels called fluytschips, had intercepted the barges and chased them back into their hiding places. So the Armada was left hanging around in the sea off Flanders, waiting for the problem of boats to be solved, which it never was.

Seeing that the Armada had come to a standstill, the English launched an evening attack with eight fireships, unmanned vessels loaded with tar, pitch, and gunpowder. Some of the Spanish captains panicked and put to sea, breaking the formation of the fleet. Because of the strong southwest wind, they were unable to reform and were pushed farther east, beyond the army they were supposed to transport.

At dawn the next day the English saw that the Spanish ships were scattered, their formation broken. They pounced, sailing in among the slower Spanish ships and firing broadside after broadside until they ran out of ammunition. They finally caused significant losses to the Spanish, sinking five ships and badly damaging many more. 

By the time the English broke off the engagement, the Spanish knew that they had failed. The Dutch were still keeping their barges bottled up, so they still could not reach the army. They knew the English had only sailed off to rearm, and they did not dare try to turn their fleet around and sail back southward into the wind. Their damaged, clumsy vessels would have been picked off one by one. So they decided to keep sailing north, around the north end of Scotland, down the west coast of Ireland and so back to Spain through the Atlantic. But they encountered fierce storms off Ireland and 58 vessels were lost, along with more than 5,000 men.

It was a terrible disaster for the Spanish and the real beginning of the English navy as a feared force on the world's oceans, plus it made Elizabeth I one of England's most beloved sovereigns and may have contributed to the remarkable creative confidence that marked England over the next generation.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Links 29 January 2021

Trompe l’oeil violin painted by Jan van der Vaardt on the door of the music room, Chatsworth House, late 17th century

 Rod Dreher tries to quit Ambien.

The Great 78 Project is digitizing old 78 rpm records. Project site, article at Atlas Obscura.

Short video of protesters in Moscow pelting riot police with snowballs.

The dream of the reusable space plane lives on.

The serial killer who lived in the same building as his victims, knew them, ran errands for them. Another example of how wrong we are to fear distant strangers more than those we live with. (NY Times)

Kevin Drum says America is in Better Shape than Everyone Seems to Think, with data to back it up.

Six-foot-long carnivorous worms lived in burrows under the Miocene ocean.

The Arizona Republican Party censures three prominent members who criticized Trump. (NY Times)

In surveys, 15 to 20% of Americans think political violence is at least "a little bit justified;" the number does not vary much between the parties but varies a lot depending on how aggressive people are in general.

Immigrants to the US are so important at the higher levels of math and science that any slowdown in US immigration directly reduces "global knowledge production," or so these these guys say.

The humor of American Jewish philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser.

Everyone on TikTok is so oppressed it makes me weep.

The Navy Seals trained him to recognize disinformation, but he still ended up believing in right-wing conspiracy theories and taking part in the Capitol riot. (New York Times)

Twitter thread on Leo Strauss, who thought past philosophers often disguised their real views out of fear of persecution; before cancel culture there was being hanged by the king or burned by the church.

What went down in a QAnon chat room over the month of January. (New York Times)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, lotteries were popular with slaves, who thus purchased a small chance to win their freedom. Denmark Vessey, later famous for leading a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, won his freedom that way. Interesting entry point for thinking about the place of lotteries in our society.

I see that the Wolf Full Moon is back. Sigh.

Thomas Edsall on white Christian nationalism in the US, (New York Times)

The ongoing dispute over whether coconut milk is made with forced monkey labor.

The ratings are down at Fox News, and some think this is a sign of a long-term problem for them: with Trump's core followers going full-bore for conspiracy, it may be all but impossible to retain them as viewers while maintaining any semblance of being a news channel. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Slave Quarter at Oak Hill Plantation, Pittsylvania County, Virginia

I just stumbled across a very interesting document, a little report of some excavations at a slave quarter in southwestern Virginia. The slave quarter, shown above, was part of Oak Hill Plantation, built in 1823-1825 by Samuel Hairston. Hairston was reputed to be the richest man in Virginia, owning a string of plantations in Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi, along with about 1,700 slaves. This building had four rooms and probably housed four families.

Ruins of the Oak Hill Plantation House, burned by arsonists a few years ago

The descendants of Hairston slaves still keep in touch, and back in the 1990s a researcher was able to interview several old folks who preserved family stories about slave life:
Daniel Hairston was an elderly descendant of Oak Hill slaves visited by the author. Hairston was born in 1920 with three of his grandparents having been slaves. Both his grandfathers, Gus Hairston and Jube Adams, had been slaves at Oak Hill. Gus used to cut ice on the river for the icehouse at Oak Hill. Daniel recounts a story of Gus working in the garden and getting himself some butter that he shouldn’t have. He was “whupped” for an unrelated offense causing the butter to fall out from under his hat where he’d hidden it. This discovery caused him to be beaten again. Daniel relates that his grandfather told it as a joke but it was a reminder that they had to take whatever was dished out just to survive.
Daniel recalled another story of how Oak Hill’s enslaved people would sometimes gather at night to kill a hog and take it off into the woods to cook. They would use fence rails for firewood and burn up all of the inedible remains to hide them before dawn. Similarly, if the enslaved population wished to worship together they would gather in the woods at night, placing a large cauldron upside down to supposedly muffle the sound.

A great aunt of Daniel’s who was enslaved at Oak Hill was once slapped in the face by “Ol’ Miss,” or the wife of the plantation owner. His great aunt was so enraged that she stuck her long fingernails into the mistress’s satin dress, tearing it. The aunt was so terrified at what she’d done that she left the plantation and went into hiding for two years. The oral history indicates that when she returned she was left unpunished for her absence. This tale was passed down through the family to show that the great aunt’s faith in God gave her the strength to return home and helped her evade punishment.

The last story is a very interesting example of a common practice in slave societies. Enslaved people sometimes just left after fights or other incidents and stayed away until they were given assurances that they would be welcomed back. Only a few "runaways" tried to make it to freedom; many more hung around the neighborhood until they were caught or made arrangements for their return, and some were just trying to visit spouses, children, or other relations from whom they had been separated.

The building had four rooms, each with a fireplace. The archaeologists had time to dig two excavation units. The position of the first one was obvious, on top of this feature, a brick-lined pit measuring 5x5 feet (1.5x1.5m).

Which after excavation looked like this. It has been bisected, as we say, and half excavated. This was a storage pit or root cellar. North American slaves loved these and dug them in most of their homes in the 1720-1860 period. In-floor storage pits are common around the world, including among English settlers in North America, and among many Native Americans. The habit of putting a pit in front of the fireplace seems to come from England. But few people have been as invested in the practice as enslaved North Americans. Some slave quarters I have seen had three or four pits. (They had boards over them most of the time.) Some archaeologists have speculated that this was done to hide extra food or stolen items, but honestly, these were not very secret, and the root cellar is the first place an overseer looking for a stolen item would search. So it may be better to think of these as private rather than secret places. Things one didn't necessarily want hanging in the open could be placed in the pit, giving the people who lived in these small homes, always under the owner's eye, some small measure of control over their lives.

The visible brick feature in the first room was a stroke of luck; most features are nothing like that obvious. In the other room they investigated, the archaeologists troweled the dust layer off the floor. They were then able to see this stain; this is what most pit features look like when they are first exposed. They are usually darker than the surrounding subsoil, and they hold water better, because of the extra organic matter.

See? Archaeology isn't so hard.

That pit looked like this after excavation. Most likely there is a similar pit in each room, so that each family had one.

Now we get to the hard part of archaeology: how, why, and when were these holes filled in? Usually we have no idea. The soil in these holes did not wash in, because that would have damaged the unmortared brick lining. Someone must have filled them, after they were no longer in use. From the artifacts found in them we can guess that was years before the building was abandoned, probably before 1850.

Archaeologists expect, or hope, that the artifacts in the pit were used by the people who lived in the house. Usually, we are right, but not always. Sometimes people fill in holes with dirt from somewhere else. An old archaeologist I knew in Delaware many years ago swore to me that he once saw a guy back a pickup truck up to an old cellar hole and shovel in a truckload of trash, then drive away. So if you ever want to flummox a young archaeologist nervously reading a paper, ask him or her where the dirt in the hole came from. (There is even a name for the study of where the dirt came from, Taphonomy. So if you really wanted to be an obnoxious questioner you could ask, "I wonder if you could elucidate the taphonomic processes at work here for me.")

But placing our hope in the odds, and assuming this stuff came from the slave quarter, what was found in these pits? All sorts of things! Like, a dozen glass beads in different colors, a frying pan handle, a bone-handled fork, tobacco pipe fragments, nails, bottle and window glass, mother of pearl and glass buttons. And this mocha-decorated Pearlware, made between 1790 and 1840. The mocha glaze was made with urine, one of the many, many industrial uses for piss that Europeans came up with. 

And regular blue and white Pearlware. We assume that the nice dishes we often find in slave quarters were castoffs from the big house, and that they were old and chipped before they were used here. But that is a guess. Many slaves, especially house servants, had some very nice material goods, like posh clothes and decent dishes. Some of them regularly rode horses or drove fancy carriages. It is a mistake to assume that status and material wealth are perfectly correlated. If you visit some plantations now (even Mount Vernon, where they know better) they try to make the slaves' lives look materially miserable in a way that is false to the world of 1790. We have plenty of pictures of George Washington's house servants, and they were dressed in outfits 90% of free people couldn't afford. Field hands had pretty terrible clothes, but remember that in their world, to be really poor was to starve, and slaves didn't starve. After emancipation, many and perhaps most African Americans were materially worse off. But they were not the least interested in trading their freedom for better clothes and the chance to ride a horse. 

Also from one of the pits, this spearpoint, which is around 10,000 years old. One of the complications of archaeology is that we are not the first people to be interested in the past. African Americans loved old stone tools, especially the ones made out of cool-looking stone like red jasper or clear quartz. Some people used these as crystals in magical practice, but it may be that some just liked them or carried them for a bit of luck. I personally excavated three amazing spearpoints from a nineteenth-century house that I feel certain belonged to one of the slaves.

To me the most fascinating thing from the pits was the animal bones, more than 6,000 in all. They came from a stunning array of species: pigs, cows, and chickens, yes, but only a few hundred domestic specimens, vastly outnumbered by the bones of wild animals. The wild animals include great blue heron, turkey, goose, duck, various songbirds, squirrel, raccoon, opossum, rabbit, chipmunk, frog, gar, perch, and other fish. Also hundreds of fragments of wild bird eggs. Archaeologists very often find the bones of wild animals in slave quarter deposits, and it is clear from this evidence that enslaved people did a lot of hunting and fishing. You could say they had to do this because the planters didn't provide them enough to eat, but on the other hand people like to hunt and fish. Hunting and fishing were and still are vital activities for many rural people because they are a pleasant way to spend time that also produces a tangible reward, food fresher and sometimes better than most people can afford to buy. Hunting and fishing also became sources of conflict on some plantations, because the slaves preferred to go fishing for themselves rather than raise the owner's crops. Robert E. Lee argued all the time with old slaves on the plantation he inherited through his Custis wife, who wanted to fish all the time and swore that was how things were run in George Washington's time.

A project like this shows how much can be learned in only a few days of fieldwork, if you know where to look and have a bit of luck, and how much archaeology can sometimes reveal about people who lived only 150 years ago.

Final Report on Excavation at the Oak HillPlantation Slave Quarter(44PY0440-0005),Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Funded by grants from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ Threatened Sites Program. Randy Lichtenberger, Director of Cultural Resources and Elizabeth A. Moore, Curator of Archaeology, VMNH. August, 2017.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

York through the Eyes of Thomas and Eleanor

Whenever there was war with Scotland, which was often, England's kings spent a lot of time in York. They found it a great place to base themselves in times of northern strife. 

York was the former command center for Rome's northern frontier, and it therefore had strong walls – rebuilt in the 13th century, but on Roman foundations – and sat at a key node of Britain's road network. It was also a seaport, allowing ready resupply and quick travel to London if the weather wasn't too bad. The image above shows a surviving piece of the walls, and if you look closely you can easily see the break between the Roman and medieval stonework.

Since The Raven and the Crown is set during a time of war between England and Scotland –1316-1330, more or less, although I compressed the timeline (But not nearly as badly as Marlowe did!) – the king spends a lot of time in York. Thus his servant Thomas of Penrith also spends a lot of time there. I have also been there, so I was able to reconstruct it in my mind more readily than most English places.

Clifford's Tower, the old Norman keep that was the center of York's castle. During the fourteenth century the king did not actually reside in the castle, but in a monastery nearby; tells you something about medieval England that the most luxurious accommodations in most towns were maintained by monks. But the royal administration was based in the castle, so the king was often there, and the scene where Thomas first meets the men of the Wardrobe is set in this tower.

Aerial view of York, with the castle in the foreground and the cathedral in the rear. The medieval town filled the space between them. The hall where a certain royal banquet is set no longer stands; its remains are underneath the parking lot.

The ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, where the king and queen usually stayed, and where Eleanor visits the queen.

St. Olave's Church, where a murder victim lies unavenged in one scene. Also where my wife and I attended Epiphany services, one of the experiences that anchors York in my imagination. 

St. Olave was of course a Norwegian king, and the presence of St. Olave's Church reminds us that York was once Jorvik, a Viking town. It was in Jorvik that Egil Skallagrimson saved his life by composing, in one night, the Viking world's most famous poem of praise, a gift so magnificent that Jarl Eirik Bloodaxe had no choice but to spare his enemy Egil's life in return. In the 1970s a major excavation was carried out at Coppergate in York, exposing more than a dozen 10th century houses and recovering tens of thousands of artifacts from Jorvik. The results are now interpreted in both a more or less normal museum (although holographic ghosts pop up from time to time to lecture you) and a "Viking Experience" where you can ride through a recreation of the town.

York has a wonderful cathedral, York Minster. This is a hybrid structure built in the Romanesque style in the 12th century, then rebuilt in the Gothic between 1220 and 1426. So during the period of my book this would have been under construction all the time. Like most other medieval cathedrals, come to think of it. One thing I remember from my visit was a strong sense that this was an active church, not just a historical site; we perused a bulletin board with notices for all sorts of parish events.

Famous window of the 1330s.

Ceiling of the Chapter House, which was completed in 1296. This is the style of the era I was trying to recapture. Western Europe reached a peak of population, wealth, and self-confidence around 1300 that, after severe famines and then the plague, was not regained until 1500 or even later.

Heading into town from the Cathedral you enter a neighborhood of winding streets with many old houses, some dating to the 1300s. 

I went into one of these, a two-story townhouse measuring about 10 by 20 feet, and it became the model for the house Eleanor occupies in Part II.

So consider visiting York, a fascinating place, although of course you will enjoy it more if you have read The Raven and the Crown first ;-)