Category Archives: History

Books Environmental politics History

Agricultural notes

Notes from Martin Empson’s, Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History

p. 144
“The census of 1851 shows that year was the peak of rural employment in Britain… Twenty years later there were more people working in domestic service than in farming. By 1880 the number working in agriculture had fallen to approximately one in eight of the working population; by the start of the Second World War the corresponding figure was one in 20.”

p. 147 On the sewing of turnip seed (lost skills!) from a contemporary account: “The sower had a small seed bowl on his chest; this was secured by a leather band which went around his neck. He took the small seed between his finger and thumb and sowed in step; that is, as his left foot came up his left hand dipped into the seed-bowl and scattered the seed. It was a skilled job to sow with both hands and keep in step as the rhythm could very easily be broken. If this happened, the sower would have to stop and start again, as a break in the rhythm meant a blank patch in the sowing. Few men, too, could judge the amount of seed to sow at each pinch of the thumb and forefinger; turnip seed was sown at the rate of half a pint an acre.. not more than one or two men on each farm could sow at the necessary rate with two hands. Most men were only able to sew with one hand.”
(quoting from George Ewart Evans, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, 1965)

p. 167
“after 1941 rationing levels meant that the average diet was better than before the war. AT the end of the war there were still 545,000 farm horses, but the 56,000 tractors on British farms had mushroomed to 230,000 by January 1946 and the number of milking machines increased by 60% between 1942 and 1946.”

p. 171
Government protection for farmers was virtually removed in India in 1991. “Before 1991 there were ‘no mass peasant suicides owing to debt’ but between 1998 and December 2008 there were 198,000 suicides and ‘specifically debt-driven suicides have claimed over 60,000 peasant lives over the last decade’. (ref: Parnaik and Moyo The Agrarian Question in the New-Liberal Era, 2011.)

p. 174 In the US 160 litres of oil are used to produce a tonne of maize. In Mexico it is less than five litres.

p. 184 One of the consequences of the Green REvolution was a tendency towards monoculture of staple crops such as grain or rice… ‘Countries with vegetable consumption of more than 100 grams of vegetables per day do not have vitamin A deficiency as a major problem… it only takes two tablespoonfuls of yellow sweet potatoes, half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables or two thirds of a medium-sized mango a day to meet the vitamin A requirements of a pre-school child. … Vitamin A deficiency in adults and children is unlikely to occur without other nutitional deficiencies”

p. 185 A 2007 estimated the lowest cost of a daily diet to meet the nutritional needs of a family of two adults and three children, one under two, in Bangladesh, Burma, Ethiopia and Tanzania … ranged from 72US cents in Tanzania to $1.17 in Ethiopia… 79% of households in Bangladesh, all households in Ethiopia and the very poor in Burma and Tanzania could not meet it. In Ethiopia a day’s unskilled work only covered 69% – in Burma it was 50%.

p. 225 “As early as 1963 one US state, Vermont, enacted legislation banning the sale of disposable bottles, driven by farmers who found their cows eating containers that had been thrown into their fields. But the packaging industry fought back. Within a few months of the Vermont legislation, the American Can Company and the Owens-Illionis Glass Company (inventors, respectively, of the disposable can and bottle) formed Keep America Beautiful (KAB). With other corporations such as Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company who had similar concerns, they initiated a well-funded campaign to persuade Americans there was a new problem in society – litter, caused by litterbugs, a term invented by KAB. KAB rapidly became a major organisation with a membership of 70 million. It produced books for schools about the problem of litter, funded anti-litter campaigns, and welcomed ‘any legislation that cracked down on individuals who carelessly tossed their trash’. … Four years after it was passed, the Vermont law banning the sale of disposable bottles was defeated.”

Books History Women's history

An interesting character in a period of change

From Venantius Fortunatus: A Latin Poet in Merovingian Gaul by Judith George

p.2 “This period was one of cultural transition, the Gallo-Romans clinging their traditional Romanitas, the Franks assimilating it with verve and enthusiasm. The impact of a poet of Fortunatus’ calibre and pedigree, an embodiment of the literary tradition they revered, on so susceptible an audience was bound to be strong. Even two generations later, the grandson of Dynamius, a Provencal noble and patron of the poet, composed an epitaph for his grandparents, with pride in their association wjth Fortunatus… his influence can be seen in writers not only in Gaul, but also in Anglo-Saxon England and in Ireland, well into the Middle Ages.”

p. 13 “The nuns of Radegund’s community in Poitiers adopted the Rule of Caesarius, which specified they should learn to read, and spend two hours a day doing so. Caesaria, abbess of the convent of St Jean in Arles, advised them: ‘COnstantly read and listen to the holy writings … gather from them previous pearls to hand on your ears, make from them rings and bracelets’… one of the biographies of their founder was written by a nun, Baudonivia, confirms the general practice of more than basic literacy.”

p. 163 “Baudonivia records of Radegund that: “She was always anxious for peace, always concerned with the wellbeing of her country. When there was tension between the kingdoms, since she loved all the kings, she prayed for the life of all and taught us to pray without ceasing for their settled state. When she heard there was any ill feeling between them, she feared with all her being and sent letters to both sides alike, so they would not resort to arms or war between themselves, but should establish peace, and thus the country not come to disaster. Likewise, she directed requests to their chief men that they should give peaceable advice to the high kings, so that, under their government, the wellbeing of the people and country should be improved.”

p. 35 “Panegyric was one of the most important literary genres in public and ceremonial life in the classical world, a vital tool of political communication and negotiation, especially between a ruler and his people. .. the fourth-century panegyrists under the Tetrarchy and the Gallic rhetorical schools that this genre reached a peak in its popularity, its recognized part in cultural life, its wide use as a subtle and influential political tool and in the full exploration of its literary potential.”

p. 59 “the address to Chilperic … was given in a tense political situation, where Fortunatus was playing an active and interventionist role. The formal structure of the genre brought to bear on Chilperic the full prestigious weight of Roman panegyric, playing on the king’s cultural aspirations, and holding up to him a mirror of the ideal statesman, the Christian ruler.”

Books History

Cookery of ages

From A History of Food in 100 Recipes, by William Sitwell

Recipe for Erbolate (baked eggs with herbs)
Take parsel, myntes, saucrey & sauge, tansey, veruayn, clarry, rewe, ditayn, fenel, southrenwode, hewe hem& gringe hem smle, meddle hem up with Ayrenn, do butter in a trape, & do pe frs perto & bake & messe it forth. {Take parsley, mint, savory, sage, tansy, vervain, clary, rue, dittany, fennel, southernwood. Chop them and grind them small. Mix them with eggs. Put butter in a baking dish and put the mixture in it. Bake and serve it in portions.
From The Forme of Cury, by the master cooks of Richard II.
“In the form of a vellum scroll, a copy of it lives in the British Library. Its graceful prose, daintily written in soft red ink, details 196. This recipe encapsulates the spirit of the book, written with the approval of medical gurus and philosophers, the herbs being meant mainly for medical purposes. … baked and sliced into portions, the resultant dish is more omelette than souffle.

From Feeding the Nation by Marguerite Patten, a home economist who had worked for the Eastern Electricity Board and Frigidaire trying to sell fridges before World War II.
3lb elderberries
3lb apples
5lb sugar
Remove berries from stalks and wash. Warm them to draw juice. Simmer for 1/3 hour to soften skins. Core apples and simmer until quite soft in another pan with very little water, pass through sieve or pulp well with a wooden spoon, add apples to to elderberries, reheat and add sugar. Stir until dissolved and boil rapidly until jam sets. Make first test for setting after 10 minutes. Put into hot jars and seal.

This at a time after Lord Woolton set up the Ministry of Food. From his memoirs: “The country never realised how nearly we were brought to disaster. During the course of two hours on a Friday afternoon, I received five separate signals from the Admiralty reporting food shops had been sunk on the Atlantic route. By some extraordinary misfortune, these five ships were largely stocked with bacon.” p. 236

He was a national figure. One broadcast radio ditty ran: “Those who have the will to win/ Cook potatoes in their skin. Knowing that the sight of peelings/Deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.” p. 237

Books History

The chemistry of chocolate

From Stuff Matters, by Mark Miodownik
p. 92-3
“Cocoa trees grow in tropical climates and produce fruit in the form of large, fleshy coca pods. These look like some form of wild and leathery orange or purple melon. The pods grow directly out of the trunk of the tree … inside each pod are 30 to 40 soft, white, fat almond-shaped seeds the size of small plums. … we harvested the cocoa beans using machetes, and then deposited them in a heap on the ground, where we left them to rot. This is how all chocolate is made. Over two weeks the heaps of beans start to decompose and ferment, and in the process they heat up. This serves the purpose of ‘killing’ the cocoa seeds, inasmuch as it stops them from germinating into cocoa plants.But more importanty it chemically transforms the raw ingredients of the cocoa beans into the precursors of the chocolate flavours…. fruity ester molecules are created, the result of a reaction between the alcohols and the acides that are created by enzymes acting within the cocoa beans… the taste of chocolate is highly dependent not just on the ripeness and species of the cocoa bean, but also on how high the rotting piles of beans are stacked, how long they are left to rot and generally what the weather is like.”

p.94-5
Drying and roasting … ” roasting turns the bean into a mini chemical factory,… first, the carbohydrates within the bean, which are mostly sugar and starch molecules, start to fall apart because of the heat. This is essentially the same thing that happens if you heat sugar in a pan: it caramelises. Only in this case the caramelizing reaction takes place inside the cocoa bean, turning it from white to brown, and cretaing a wonderful range of nutty caramel flavour molecules…. Another type of reaction, … also contributes to the colour and flavour of the cocoa: the Malliard reaction. This is when a sugar reacts with a protein …. reacting ith the acids and esters and resulting in a huge range of smaller flavour molecules. It is no exageration to say that without the Maillard reaction the world would be a much less delicious place: it is the Maillard reaction that is responsible for the flaour of bread crust, roasted vegetables, and many other roasted, savoury flavours. In this case the Maillard reaction is responsible for the nutty, meaty flabours of chocolate, while also reducing some of the astringency and bitterness…

Grind up the fermented and roasted cocoa nuts and add them to hot water and you have the original hot ‘chocoatl’ made by the Mesoamericans… When Europeans explorers got hold of the drink… they exported it to coffee houses, where it competed with tea and coffee to be the beverage of choice of Europeans – and lost. What no one had really mentioned was that ‘chocatl means ‘bitter water’ and even though it was sweetened with the new cheap sugar … it was also a gritty, oily and heavy drink, because 50% of the cocoa bean is cocoa fat. This is how it remained for another 200 years, an exotic drink, notable but not terribly popular.”

Books History Politics Women's history

An astonishing veil of royal protection

What’s really most astonishing about The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is what’s missing. That’s no fault of the author, Lucinda Hawksley, but she has to leave large gaps in her biography, for documents relating to Princess Louise, who died in 1939, and her husband, who may have had his own secrets, as a homosexual in an intolerant age, remain classified and closed away.

We’re not talking about matters of state here, some deep secret about the First World War and relations with Germany that might somehow, distantly, have modern ramifications, or impact on anyone alive today – what we’re talking about are documents that probably, Hawksley concludes, show that Louise had an illegitimate child.

But when she went to the Royal Archives,she found a brick wall: “We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.” And she found that archivists in the National Gallery, Royal Academ and the V&A, as well as overseas collections in Malta, Bermuda and Canada, we bemused to find that material they expected to hold had been removed to the Royal archive.

Hawksley traces that probable child, adopted by the Queen’s accoucher, and family. She reports how his descendant, Nick Locock, tried to get his grandfather’s body exhumed, from a family mausoleum in Kent to establish that through DNA tests, which would have involved drilling through the coffin and removing a fragment of bone. A long legal battle ended with that being denied on the basis of “the sanctity of Christian burial”. “As Nick commented to me with a wry smile a few years after losing the court case: ‘I wouldn’t have minded so much if the very same church hadn’t recently moved about 200 bodies to make way for a coffee shop in the crypt!” (p. 93)

And the records of Queen Victoria – her volumninous letters and diaries are apparently available, but as Hawksley notes, not what they seem. For they aren’t the originals, but were heavily edited by Princess Beatrice. Given how much of a nasty, self-centred, vindictive character the Queen appears, it’s hard to imagine just how bad the originals are, Hawksley concludes.

Despite her upbringing, Louise was, for a royal, an interesting character. She tried to support Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act – and although she was stopped from that on the basis of “this is politics”, she maintained a friendship with Butler, as well as many deeply “unsuitable”campaigners and artists. Perhaps not surprising that a central London pub was named after her.

This is definitely worth a read for a glimpse into another world – and a perspective on current debates on child abuse and neglect – for Queen Victoria certainly treated her children in a way that would count as emotional abuse under proposed new laws. Of course whether she’d get arrested would be another question…

Books History Women's history

Reading a fine history of Delphi

A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics

There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.

But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.

That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.

That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.

He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.

He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.
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